Early January sees an ancient custom performed in an orchard near Bolney which is known as Wassailing. The name wassail comes from the Saxon ‘waes hal’ which means ‘be whole’, the equivalent of ‘good health’. This custom was popular throughout southern England where apple, plum, pear and cherry trees were grown. Although the form of the custom could differ from region to region, the end result was the same – to encourage the trees to bear huge amounts of fruit.
Wassailing was known as Howling, in Sussex, and usually took place on twelfth night (January 5th ) but could be performed at almost anytime between Christmas Eve and Old Twelfth Night January 18th. On December 20th 1665, Giles Moore, the Rector of Horsted Keynes wrote ‘gave to the howling boys’ 4d.’
Groups of Howlers would go from tree to tree howling, and would finish at the big house of the owner where they would be given cider, ale and the festivities of the season. It had to be performed correctly as a bad wassailing is sure to be followed by a defective crop. At the trees they would chant
Stand fast root, bear well, top
God send us a howling crop
Every twig, apples big!
Every bough, apples enow!
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters, sacks full
And little heaps under the stairs!
After this they would beat the trees with sticks and make as much noise as possible. A traditional wassail cake would be soaked in cider and placed in the branches of one of the trees as an offering and to placate the birds, so they don’t eat the young fruit.
The ceremony would have been common on all orchards in and around Henfield up until the early 1900’s when it appears to have died out. The custom was revived in 1967 by the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men who performed it at Gills Orchard for many years until the orchards redevelopment saw it moved to The Old Mill Farm in Bolney.
Sussex was one of the counties that wassailed bee-hives, but I do not think this custom has survived. Wassail!
Steve Robotham, Assistant Curator, Henfield Museum
Image © Henfield Museum
Taken from the January 2018 edition of The Parish Magazine.
Read more stories like this by subscribing to the Parish Magazine for just £6 per year.