Traditionally, the festive period extended several days beyond the New Year, yet for many that practice has declined and most of us have taken down the Christmas tree and weaned ourselves off the leftovers by then. I’ve recently learnt of an ancient custom that took place in the depths of West Sussex between Twelfth Night (5th January) and “Old Twelvey Night” (17th January) called ‘Apple Howling’, and was as important a tradition as making New Year resolutions.
Some of you may already be familiar with wassailing; an ancient tradition which involves creating a lot of noise, usually accompanied by dancing, to banish bad spirits and welcome in a productive new year. Villagers would take with them a wassail bowl, usually filled with warmed cider or beer, and offer it to their fellow neighbours who would give them a gift in return. You may think of it like the precursor to carolling. Apple howling is a unique type of wassailing, but rather than going door to door in your neighbourhood, participants go from tree to tree in an orchard. This event is still practised today in Bolney and Singleton, and has also been practised recently in Rye, East Sussex.
So, what exactly do you do when go apple howling?
Participants may bring items they can ‘beat’ such as tin cans or dust bin lids, to scare off any otherworldly beings that bring bad luck. Singing and chanting are also a key part of the festivities. One article from the West Sussex Gazette, 9th Jan 1964, reports that the following words were often repeated:
“Stand fast root, bear well top,
Prat the God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, apples big;
Every bough, apples enou;
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters sacks full.”
The Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men, who still practise this event in Bolney, describe how they gently beat the trunks of the trees with a stick to encourage the production of apples and guarantee a good harvest.
What’s behind this odd tradition?
Although Somerset is particularly known for its cider, Sussex also has a reputation for producing the fruity drink. Cider is, of course, primarily made from apples, and the much weaker brews were drunk regularly as an alternative to the unhygienic water supplies that were prevalent up until the 20th Century. Strong cider would have been made and saved for special occasions. This alcoholic beverage was extremely important to Sussex society over the centuries, it not only provided a safe drink but it also bolstered the local economy.
George Garland, the famous Petworth based photographer, captured two traditional cider makers Dick Bicknell and Jesse Dalmon in 1933. Dick, in particular, had been making cider for 40 years and was taught how to do so by someone who also had many years of experience and had travelled around West Sussex producing cider for farmers and villagers. It demonstrates how integral cider making was to Sussex people, and why yelling at and dancing around an apple tree for a good harvest doesn’t seem so barmy after all.