Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas celebration of mining history turns 50 |

Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas celebration of mining history turns 50

Harold J. George directs the Carol Choir on the steps of the Union Building about 1959. Before there was a Cornish Christmas the choir climbed the steps to sing for a large audience on Christmas Eve. In an earlier period, the choir sang at the intersection of Main and Mill streets.
Photo courtesy Gage McKinney |

Know & Go

What: Cornish Christmas

Where: Historic downtown Grass Valley

When: 6-9 p.m. Fridays from Nov. 24-Dec. 22, rain or shine

Admission: free; period/holiday attire is encouraged

For more info: 530.272-8315 or visit

Cornish Christmas — a holiday celebration commemorating Grass Valley’s mining heritage — turns 50 this Friday.

At one time, Cornish miners comprised the majority of the city’s population. But when the mines closed for good in the 1950s, many of the town’s traditions began to fade as well.

According to local historian and author Gage McKinney, two downtown merchants cooked up the idea of Cornish Christmas — both to honor the defining element of Grass Valley’s mining history, and to encourage downtown commerce.

Johnny George and Lou Ludel were not Cornish, McKinney noted. But, he said, that seems entirely appropriate given the fact that the Cornish identity is “a little bit fluid.”

“You will never hear these carols in a shopping mall. These are Grass Valley’s own carols.”— Gage McKinney, Local historian

Over time, the miners’ Cornish heritage became the town’s identity, McKinney said.

“That makes it a welcoming thing,” he said. “Everyone can be Cornish.”

Carol Choir has rich history of its own

The history of the Cornish Carol Choir has a similar arc, from a mining tradition that nearly died out and then was reinvented as a community endeavor to become a mainstay of Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas and of the holiday season in Nevada County.

Originally, those Cornish carols were sung by clubs, in private homes or pubs, McKinney said.

“In 1875, some people in town heard the carols and asked them to sing for the whole town,” he said.

The following year, the Carol Choir was formed. Back then, the choir sang on the street, at the intersection of Main and Mill streets. At some point, they moved to the steps of what was then The Union on Mill Street.

“When I was a little boy and spent Christmases here, my grandfather would take my brother and me,” McKinney said. “They would sing on Christmas Eve. There would be a big turnout of people, just coming out to hear the choir sing.”

The choir would sing at various churches in town, as well as the orphanage at Mt. St. Mary’s, at the hospital and in the nursing homes, as they still do today.

McKinney still remembers his grandfather introducing him to the old mining men, many of whom had sung in the choir since they were boys.

When the last mine in the area closed in 1956, the choir reverted to only performing in private clubs.

So when Cornish Christmas made its debut, McKinney said, there was a lot of interest in bringing back the Carol Choir.

Initially, the boys choir at Nevada Union High School sang the carols at Cornish Christmas, with some of the old gold miners joining them.

The Cornish Carol Choir officially started back up in 1990, thanks to Eleanor Kenitzer; she still leads the choir, 28 years later.

“A few of us who sing in the choir are descendants of the Cornish miners,” McKinney said.

One of them is 9-year-old Maddie Murphy.

“Her great-grandfather, John Hollow, came from Cornwall, worked in the Empire Mine and sang with the carol choir for nearly 40 years,” McKinney said. “Maddie and her father, Steve Murphy, sing with the choir today.”

Most of the choir, however, are people who just value the tradition, he said.

“This is genuine folk music, written by amateur composers who were all mining men,” McKinney said. “You will never hear these carols in a shopping mall. These are Grass Valley’s own carols. They’re only sung here and in Cornwall, and in a few other mining districts around the world.”

Elves, jugglers, chestnuts and more

While the Cornish Carol Choir is an integral part of Cornish Christmas, there will be plenty of other entertainment.

The first Cornish Christmas on Friday tends to be the most crowded, as college students home for the holidays look to meet up with their friends there. A foot parade will kick off the event with Beale Air Force Base, Grass Valley Fire and Police department members, Cornish Pageant Queens and Santa leading the parade from Gold Miners Inn to Main Street.

During every Cornish Christmas, Mill and West Main streets will be closed to motorized traffic and filled with the sights and sounds of an old-fashioned Christmas complete with carolers, jugglers, musicians, the Tommyknocker Cloggers and of course, Santa Claus photos as Three Lilies Photography. Look for both children and adults dressed in period costumes selling mistletoe.

Santa’s elves will have a workshop for kids’ crafts and Tofanelli’s Gold Country Bistro will have a Letters to Santa mailbox for all ages with stationary and a guaranteed reply from Santa. Classic cars from Roamin’ Angels Car Club will pepper the surrounding streets, and handmade arts and crafts from artists throughout California will be on display. Food and drink can be purchased from a number of restaurants and specialty food vendors and there will be — as always — chestnuts roasted on an open fire.

Cornish Connection includes free gift wrapping, Cornish trivia, and Cornish King and Queen photo opportunities at M3Mall on Neal Street.

In addition to the Friday celebrations, there will be a special Holiday Plaza tree lighting event on Saturday, Dec. 2 from 2-7 p.m. on Mill Street. A town Christmas tree will be introduced with a lighting ceremony at 6 p.m.

“The town looks great — people should come out,” said Grass Valley Mayor Howard Levine. “We try to update (Cornish Christmas) and keep it interesting.

“It’s a wonderful tradition,” Levine continued. “It represents an important aspect of Grass Valley.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at

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