Terry McLaughlin: ‘Everyone is Cornish’ in Grass Valley Saturday
Saturday, March 14, marks the traditional celebration of St. Piran’s Day in Grass Valley.
If you have not attended this annual event in years past, you may not be aware that St. Piran is to Cornwall what St. Patrick is to Ireland.
Piran is the most famous of all the saints said to have come to Cornwall from Ireland, and he is central to the culture and identity of Cornwall, whose citizens revere him as one of their patron saints.
Piran was born in Ireland sometime in the 5th century. He studied scripture in Rome, and after returning to Ireland, was made a Bishop. He is claimed to have performed many miracles in Ireland, among them the resurrection back to life of soldiers slain in battle. But legend has it that the kings of Ireland at the time were not impressed and had him flung into the stormy sea with a millstone tied around his neck. The sea became calm, as the story is told, and Piran floated safely over the water to land in Cornwall upon the sandy Perran Beach in Perranporth (also referred to as Perranzabuloe). Once there, he built a small chapel and his first disciples are said to have been a badger, a fox and a bear.
Living as a hermit, St. Piran’s oratory and austerity won him the veneration of many, and people would come from miles around to hear him preach. He was joined by many of his Christian converts, and together they founded the Abbey of Lanpiran, where St. Piran served as abbot.
St. Piran is also considered to be the patron saint of tin miners. Tin had been smelted in Cornwall since before the arrival of the Romans, but over time the methods had been lost. Quite by accident, St. Piran rediscovered tin-smelting when his black hearthstone, a slab of tin-bearing ore, leaked tin smelt which rose to the top in the form of a white cross. The Cornish Flag, also called the Flag of St. Piran, depicts a white cross on a black background, representing the white tin flowing from the black rock – or good overcoming evil.
One of the many legends revolving around St. Piran is that he lived for 200 years. Another legend describes how he was fond of a drink and met his end falling down a well. What is known is that his remains were eventually exhumed and redistributed to be venerated in various reliquaries. Exeter Cathedral was reputed to possess one of his arms, while St. Piran’s Old Church in Perranporth had a reliquary containing his head.
St. Piran’s Day started as one of the many holidays observed by the tin miners of Cornwall. It was said to be a favorite with the tinners, who share a traditional belief that some secrets regarding the manufacture of tin were communicated to their ancestors directly by St. Piran himself. The term “Perrantide” has been coined to describe the week prior to this saint’s feast day. The modern observance of St Piran’s day as a national symbol of the people of Cornwall started in the late 19th and early 20th century, to provide the people of Cornwall with a national holiday similar to those observed in other nations.
Since the 1950s, the celebration has become increasingly popular, and since the start of the 21st century almost every Cornish community holds some sort of remembrance to mark the event. One of the largest St. Piran’s Day events in Cornwall is the march across the dunes of Perranzabuloe to St. Piran’s Cross, attended by hundreds of people generally dressed in black, white and gold, and carrying the Cornish flag. A play of the Life of St. Piran has been enacted at this event since 2000. Daffodils are often carried and placed at the foot of St. Piran’s Cross.
In Grass Valley St. Piran’s Day is celebrated annually to honor the Cornish miners who participated in our area’s mining history beginning in the mid-19th century. Although similar celebrations are held in several other communities, Grass Valley holds the unique distinction of being the only town in the United States celebrating St. Piran’s Day to be listed on the informational website Wikipedia.
Every year Grass Valley captures some fun with its annual St. Piran’s Day Pasty Toss Contest, and this year is no different. The festivities will be held at the Grass Valley City Hall parking lot at 125 E. Main Street, at 9:a.m. March 14, beginning with the bell and call of the Town Crier and the raising of the American and Cornish flags. The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir will lead the attendees in singing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Trelawny”, the national anthem of Cornwall.
Then, on this day when “Everyone is Cornish,” the pasties will fly! Historically, the mayors of Grass Valley and Nevada City vie in the first heat with the hope of capturing the Mayor’s Trophy. Over the years, Grass Valley’s mayor has held a slight edge in the competition. Come to see who will prevail in 2020!
Other contestants will follow, commonly including the police chiefs of the two towns, representatives of local service clubs, and Cornish descendants. Come and enjoy this annual Grass Valley tradition, at which you are encouraged to bring your leashed dogs. They will be delighted at the opportunity to help clean up the tossing pasties, made with healthy dog-friendly ingredients!
Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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