History of Christmas In Sussex (1883)


The festivities of the Christmas season naturally require considerable preparation, and so it is necessary to glance at what takes place for about a month before the festival.

In Sussex it is usual to prepare the mincemeat before ” Stir-up Sunday” (i.e., the Sunday next before Advent), so named from the Collect for the day, which commences, ” Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord.” The Collect warns the Sussex housewife of the approach of Christmas, and to commence to ” stir up ” her plum-pudding, and tells the grocer to stock his shop-window with Christmas fruits for sale.

The Rev. Prebendary Cimpion (?) says, Each taster ought (so the orthodox say) to wish on tasting the mincemeat. Sussex mincemeat is a palatable compound, not merely composed of currants and sugar, with a dash of spice, bat containing good beef and prime suet well -chopped.

It may not be out of place here to give the old recipe (200 yrs. old)for making mincemeat:

“Lean beef (well boiled) 4 lb., beef suet J lb., sugar i lb., currants J lb., candied peel 2 oz.; about six apples, cut very fine ; add a little nutmeg and brandy. Put into a jar and cover with brandy paper.”

The next proceeding is the manufacture of the Christmas pudding, and the stirring of this is a matter of grave importance. After careful mixing it is first stirred by the mother, then by the father, next by the children in order of seniority, and including the baby (should there be one), and lastly by the servants, as every one residing under the roof must stir. Each person on stirring must wish, not mentioning the wish to any one.

The pudding must be stirred carefully, and the spoon moved round to follow the sun. Should any member of the household not be at hand on his turn arriving, the pudding should be placed aside to await his return. In mixing the pudding it is usual to put in a ring, a button (of horn or some harmless material, and not too small), a thimble, and a crooked sixpence.

When the pudding is cut the one who gets the ring is expected to be married before the year is out (a rather short period !), the recipient of the button will die an old bachelor, the one getting the thimble will die an old maid, whilst the crooked sixpence of course brings good luck.

On St. Thomas’s Day (December 21) the poor made their preparation for Christmas by collecting dolts, and were formerly termed dollers. The ” Diary of Walter Gale,” schoolmaster of Mayfield, Sussex, says, under date December 21, 1749 :

— ” I went to the school, where we were followed by Mr. li. B iker and his lady, and Master Kent, who ordered Stephen Parker, the sexton, to let some of the dollers in, which being done, he distributed the cash, I taking the account of the receivers. We found the number to be 108″ (Suss. Arch. Coll., ix. 189). Like some other words, the word dole, derived from the Anglo-Saxon dilan (to divide), has Inst its old force and meaning, which was really a division, or sharing with our poorer neighbours, and is now degraded to mean a pittance or small allowance.

In some parts of Sussex this day is called ” Giving Day,” but formerly the old people went “a-gooding,” and Horsfield, writing in 1827 (Hist, and Antiq. of Ltwts, ii. 263), says the custom was then kept up in Lewes and the neighbourhood, and was confined to women, who in a body went from house to house soliciting alms, with which they made merry, and what remained was divided amongst them. The Rev. W. D. Parish says, ” The presumed object is now to obtain money or provisions for the approaching festival of Christmas,” and asserts that “a widow has a right ti a double dole.”

In recent years doles have become very firmly established in Brighton in two interesting forms. The first is in connexion with the Brighton Borongh Magistrates’ Poor box. An excellent plan was started about 1855 by Arthur Bigge, Esq., the police magistrate (who is now senior to all holding that office in England), of presenting to the deserving aged poor of Brighton half-a- sovereign each on (or about) St. Thomas’s Day. In 1882 the numbers participating were 63 men and 87 women, total 150, and their ages ranged from seventy-two to ninety-one, the average being eighty-one. The distribution being made on the knowledge of the police is a guarantee against any misapplication of the funds.

The second form of dole is under the will of the late Mr. John Bates, of Norfolk Road, Brighton (died May 28, 1874), who bequeathed to the Mayor, Aldermen, and Councillors of Brighton* a sum of 12,000/. upon trust, to apply the income amongst the poor of Brighton over fifty years of age on December 21 (or 22), yearly, one-third to be given in bread, another in meat, and the remainder in coals. The practice is to issue orders on local tradesmen to the value of twelve shillings for every person, one-third of each being for bread, meat, and coals respectively. The mayor is allowed to nominate thirty persons, and the fifty-one aldermen and councillors nominate twelve each. The testator also bequeathed 1,000/. to the Brighton School Board upon trust, to apply the income on 600/. thereof for a Christmas treat for the teachers and children of Sunday-schools in Brighton, and the income on the remainder for those in Hove.

In recent years musical performances in anticipation of Christmas have been introduced, to the annoyance of householders in Brighton and other Sussex towns. Idle boys enter the front gardens of houses, and attempt to sing ” Hark, the herald angels sing,” or some other Christmas hymn; but being generally unable to manage even one verse correctly, they usually beat an ignominious retreat. This nuisance commences earlier each year, and now is ushered in with the first week of December.

Brass bands also patrol the streets about one o’clock in the morning, and when (as is not unfrequently the case) the members of the band are half intoxicated, weary sleepers are startled with weird variations on tunes from Moody and Sankey’s collection. The boys and bands term themselves “waits.” The old Sussex customs of wassailing are, however, of greater interest. The lawful period of wassailing is from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day, and the apple trees and other fruit trees are generally wassailed during this period, whilst Horsfield states that bee-hives are also wassailed in some parts of Sussex.

A correspondent of ” N. & Q.” (1* 8. vi. 601) says : ” Parties of labouring men go from house to house singing carols and songs. They are welcome at the fireside of cottage and farm, and are still tolerated at the Hall.” The wassail-bowl (as Horsfield states) was compounded of ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted applet, the latter called ” lamb’s-wool.” The wassail-bowl is placed on a small round table, and each person present is furnished with a silver spoon to stir.

They then walk round and round the table, singing as they go and stirring with the right hand, and every alternate person passesat the sametime under the arm of his preceding neighbour. The wassailing (or” worsling,” as it is termed inWest Sussex) of tie fruit trees, &c, is considered a matterof graveimportance, and its omission is held to bring ill-luck, if not the loss of all the next crop. Those who engage in the ceremony are termed ” howlers,” and no doubt rightly Bo, as real old Sussex music is in a minor key, and can hardly be distinguished from howling. The ” Diary of the Bev. Giles Moore,” of Horsted Keynes, records : ” 1670. ^ 26th December. I gave the howling boys 6rf.” u» date appears to vary in different parts of Sussex. Horsfield says it takes place ” during Christmas.

A correspondent of “N. & Q.” (1″ S. v. 293) quotes a wassail rhyme used at Chailey on Christmas Eve ; the diary already quoted refers to December 26th as then the date at Horsted Keynes; bats recent writer (Suss. Arch. Coll., i. 110) »»J*» now takes place there on New Year’s Eve, which is the date assigned as customary in the cider districts of Sussex by Mrs. Latham (Folk-Ion Bmi, vol. i.), who adds it is continued for several succeeding days ; whilst, lastly, the Rev. “

Parish refers to the custom as observed on tie eve of the Epiphany. The farm labourers, after the day’s toil is ended (in West Sussex, ssp Horsfield), or boys (in other parts of the county, assemble in a group to wassail the apple trees, Sc The trumpeter of the party is furnished with • cow’s horn, with which he ” makes sweet music. Thus equipped, they call on the farmer, and inquire, ” Please, sir, do you want your trees worsled ? ” and they then proceed to the orchard, and, encircling one of the largest and best-beanns trees, chant in low notes a certain doggerel nt/Wi and this ended, all shout in chorus, with the exception of one boy, who blows a loud blast on tM cow’s horn. During the ceremony they rap t» trees with their sticks. ” Thus going from tree to tree, or group to group, they wassail the w* orchard ; this finished, they proceed to the hou: of the owner, and sing at his door a song cTM’ mon on the occasion. They are then admitted and, placing themselves around the kitchen are, enjoy the sparkling ale and festivities of ‘ season” (Horsfield). Mrs. Latham says t» farmers give a few pence to the worslers. There are two wassail rhymes in use in Sussex. The Chailey rhyme runs thus :—

“Stand fast, root; bear well, top;

Pray the God send us a good bowling crop.

Every twig, apples big;

Every bough, apples enow.

Hats full, caps full,

Full quarters, sacks full.”

Mrs. Latham quotes the rhyme in this form, adding

After the last line, ” Holloa, boys, holloa! Huzza!”

The other rhyme is given by the Rev. W. D.

Parish, in his Dictionary, as follows :—

” Here’s to theo, old apple tree;

-May’st thou bud, may’st thou blow,

May’st thou bear apples enow !

Hats full! caps full!

Bushel, bushel sacks full !

And my pockets full too! Huzza ! “

It seems not improbable that these two rhymes are parts of one old rhyme; for if the first three lines of the second rhyme are placed so as to read before the entire first rhyme, an intelligible, connected rhyme will be formed.

On Christmas Eve the rooms and pictures are decorated with holly, which is more commonly known as ” Christmas” in Sussex, and this remains up until the Epiphany (Twelfth Night), on the evening of which it is placed on the fire and burnt.

Christmas Day is generally regarded in Sussex as a lucky day on which to be born, and Mrs. Latham says: ” If you were born on Christmas Day, you will neither be drowned nor hanged.”

Christmas cakes (or some part) are kept for twelve months in Sussex, to bring luck ; and there is a common saying in the county that you will have a lucky month for each different person’s ” make ” of pudding you taste. Mrs. Latham says, in reference to Christmas Day:”

It is lucky to be the first to open the house door on this festival, and in my youth I was once persuaded by my nurse to get up with her, before any of the family, that we might divide this luck between us, she throwing open the door that led to the offices, while I admitted Christmas by the hall door, saying, as I had been instructed by her,’ Welcome, old Father Christmas!'” (“West Sussex Folk-lore,” Folklore Record, vol. i.)

On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), now more usually known as Boxing Day, mummers go round in various parts of Sussex. These appeared as recently as the year 1882. They are called “tipteers,” or ” tipteerers,” but the origin of this name is obscure. The performers are usually -dressed in costumes made of glazed lining, and are provided with swords made of laths.

They perform a rude play, which is probably The Seven Champion* of Christendom, but the story is much obscured and altered by the ignorance of the performers.

Source: Notes and queries, 1883

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