Old Worthing Christmas Traditions and Customs

The cold and dark days of December and January gave rise to a good deal of folklore in days gone by. We can glean some of these old traditions and beliefs by looking through the pages of the Worthing Monthly Record that was published in the 1850s. The folklorist, Charlotte Latham, who worked as a governess in Worthing in the early nineteenth century is another good source for ancient omens and superstitions.

While no ill would come of gathering snow to make a snowman, local lore strictly warned against collecting hailstones, which was regarded as being a ‘manifest impiety’. In evidence of this, one old woman told Mrs. Latham, that hailstones put into a glass would run straight through it, leaving a nasty slop underneath. This suspicion of hailstones may be due to them falling in the summer as well as the winter, when their appearance seemed to defy the natural order. In 1853 one of the worst hailstorms ever recorded wrecked the horticulture industry around Worthing, smashing glasshouses and destroying crops.

December 21st is St. Thomas’s day and in the past it was a time for charitable giving, especially to elderly widows. Every St. Thomas’s day in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a bull would be slaughtered at Mitchelgrove Farm near Patching and the meat distributed to the poor. Groups of poor widows would go door-to-door collecting seasonal gifts, this was known as ‘Gooding,’ from the archaic term ‘Goodwife.’

Throughout the Christmas period groups of young men would perform ‘The Mummers Play’ in which various historical archetypes of this and other countries would fight for the honour of their land. The play was not altogether serious and was often accompanied by much drinking. The ‘performers’ would take their play to all the big houses in the district, where the residents would provide them with drink and food. Needless to say, as the evening drew on, the play was likely to become less coherent with each subsequent performance!

Mrs Latham records the old custom of wassailing (pronounced ‘worsling’), when groups of men and boys would parade to the apple orchards and perform rituals that they believed would ensure a ‘good howling crop’ of apples in the following autumn. As cider was, until the mid-nineteenth century the most popular tipple in Sussex, it is not surprising that this custom was so popular. The trees would be beaten with sticks and loud blasts sounded on a cow’s horn. Then the following verse would be sung –

                                                        Stand fast root,

                                                        Bear well top,

                                                        Pray God send us

                                                        A good howling crop

                                                        Every twig

                                                        Apples big,

                                                        Every bough,

                                                        Apples now,

                                                        Hats full, caps full,

                                                        Full quarter sacks full,

                                                        Holla, boys, holla! Huzzah!

The Monthly Record described wassailing as a rite of passage for boy entering a man’s world – indeed without the presence of a boy or virgin wassailer, the whole ritual was sure to fail. Mrs. Latham records the case of a boy who could not wassail his grandfather’s orchard because he was ill – the family were convinced that the crop would be a total failure as a consequence.

Wassailing could take place on New Year’s Eve or Twelfth Night.

Another January custom, detailed by the Monthly Record, took place on January 21st, ‘the Eve of St. Agnes’, made famous by Keats, who wrote his famous poe while living at Chichester. A young woman who went to sleep that night having fasted and wearing new bed clothes, would be sure to dream of her true love to be. On laying herself in bed she might recite the following charm –

                                    Good St. Agnes play thy part,

                                    And shew to me my own sweetheart,

                                    And send me such a happy bliss


                                    This night of him to have a kiss.