Apple Howling at Henfield

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Apple Howling at Henfield

Published in English Dance and Song, Christmas 1981

One of the most interesting folk customs in Sussex is Apple Howling, known in other areas as Wassailing the Apple Trees. This event is traditionally performed on Twelfth Night and has particular attraction as a tree fertility rite to the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men whose badge has tree symbols.

The ceremony has been performed for the past five years at Gill Orchard, Furner's Lane, Henfield, with the kind co-operation of the Whittome family and the enthusiastic support of the local people. Before that, C.R.M.M. per-formed the ceremony at Tendring in East Sussex, by kind invitation of Mary Bear.

We have always performed the howling after dark and the torches and excitement of the occasion always create a unique and magical atmosphere.

First a horn is blown, and the morris men process on with torches and form a ring around one of the oldest and largest trees in the orchard. Then the traditional chant is made by all:

Here's to thee, old apple tree; may'st thou bud, may'st thou bow!

Hats full! Caps full! Bushel, bushel, bags full!

Sacks full! Barns full! And our pockets full!

A spiced wassail cake, soaked in cider, is placed in a fork of the tree to ensure the goodwill of the robins and other birds, and cider is poured over the roots to ensure good growth. The assembled company then shout:

Stand fast, root! Bear well, top!

God send us a howling crop!

Every twig, apples big! Every bough, apples enow!

The beaters then thrash the apple tree with sticks to stimulate growth and a wassail song is sung. The morris men then perform several dances around the tree.

A shotgun is discharged into the air and a general hullabaloo takes place, the entire company making as much noise as possible, shouting and banging things until a whistle is blown. This is the famous "Howling".

Three cheers are then given for the apple trees; three cheers for Mr. Whittome and his family; and three cheers for ourselves. The proceedings end with the distribution of spiced wassail cakes (baked to a secret recipe by Tim Cutress!) washed down with cider.

No wonder English apples are the best in the world!

From English Dance and Song magazine. EDS Vol 43 No 4