Sussex Christmas traditions

Updates / 15.11.22
Mark Vaesen

We’re proud to be based in Sussex – it’s beautiful, historic and sometimes downright strange.

And this quirky outlook on rural life is never exemplified better than at Christmas.

Here are some of our favourite Sussex Christmas traditions; some dating back to ancient times and others which are more recent inventions.

Mummers or Tipteerers

Perhaps the most famous of Sussex Christmas traditions, Mummers (or Tiptreers as they’re known locally) are small bands of folk players who travel from pub to pub putting on a traditional Christmas play. Often these are groups of Morris dancers who turn their hand to Mumming and wassailing (see below) over the winter.

The cast turn up at a pub and, if allowed in, clear a space to put on a short play introduced by none other than Father Christmas. He’s accompanied by characters including St George, the Turkish Knight, and a doctor. Much banter, fighting and magical cures ensue, finishing with a song and dance. Each play follows broadly the same traditional storyline, but there are lots of variations.

Here’s an example from the Ashdown Mummers:

The origins of Mummers are not clear, but they seem to have started as plays performed to wealthy locals in their homes, in return for money or food. This often culminated in a Christmas Eve performance for their village.

Some believe that Mummers have their roots in pagan times, with the plays reflecting the dying back of the land in the winter, followed by the magical cure of spring. However, the current form of Mummers plays seems to date to the late 17th century at the earliest.

If you fancy seeing the Mummers this Christmas, here are a few of our Sussex groups:

Brighton Christmas Day Dip

Despite the discomfort, potential dangers of cold water sea swimming, and discouragement from the local council, the Brighton Christmas Day Dip is still going strong after over 100 years.

At 11am on Christmas Day brave (foolhardy?) swimmers flock to Brighton’s beaches for a dip in the ocean, while spectators get ready with warm towels and glasses of fizz.

People wearing Santa hats in the sea
The 2021 Christmas Day Dip, image courtesy of The Argus.

Dating back to 1860, the Christmas Day Dip was established by Brighton Swimming Club. It’s thought to be the longest established Christmas swim in England.

1929 Brighton Christmas Dip
Courtesy of Brighton Swimming Club.

Please note that Brighton & Hove City Council discourage the Christmas Day swim. It’s important to understand the potential dangers of cold water sea swimming and hidden dangers such as the steep shingle slope on Brighton beach. Stay safe everyone!

Singing bees

According to Bodleian Law Library there used to be a Sussex tradition of bees singing at Christmas.

It was said that, on Christmas Eve, the bees would start singing in their hives at midnight, to mark the birth of Jesus.

We can’t find any modern day references to this, but love the idea of carolling bees!

Wassailing (or apple howling)

The custom of wassailing dates back to Saxon times. It’s common in apple growing areas, such as Sussex and Kent, and is intended to ward off evil winter spirits to ensure a good crop the following autumn.

The tradition includes tying red ribbons to an apple tree and placing cider-soaked bread on the branches as an offering to the good spirits of the orchard. The wassailers, by torchlight, then sing, bang sticks, hit saucepan lids together and generally make a huge racket in order to scare away the bad spirits.

The ceremony cumulates in a bowl of wassail (warm, spiced cider) being passed around, each drinker shouting “Wassail” before taking a draught. The word “wassail” derives from the Anglo Saxon “Waes Hael” meaning “to be in good health”.

Wassailing at Maplehurst
Image courtesy of Glyn Baker/Wassail.

In Sussex this is also known as “Howling”. While previously reserved for rural communities, in recent years a wassailing custom has grown in Hastings where groups go from house to house wassailing any apple trees in their back gardens.

Traditionally it was held on the 17th January, which was the “Old Twelvy Night”, before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar shifted Twelfth Night to the 5th January.

Many of the local Morris groups wassail in the winter months. You can also visit the Wassailing Day at the Weald and Downland museum.

Orange throwing

A Christmas tradition which is sadly (or perhaps happily?) no longer with us is orange throwing. According to Sussex Live, on Boxing Day people would gather with bowls of oranges to throw. The object was to collide with someone else’s orange, if you did then you got to keep both oranges.

Santa Dashes

Santa Dashes are an increasingly popular way of celebrating Christmas in Sussex – and a great way to burn off a few calories before indulging over the festive season.

There are plenty of runs to choose from, for example the Bexhill Santa Dash in 2022 also invites you to bring your dog, or “Santa Paws”, along for the run!

The Bexhill Santa Dash
the Bexhill Santa Dash, image courtesy of Bexhill Lions Club.

Sussex Carol

Finally, it would be remiss of us not to mention that Sussex has its very own carol. It’s based on a popular folk song which was sung throughout the country, dating back to at least 1684, if not earlier.

In 1919 Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged a version of it. This became known as the Sussex Carol because it was based on a tune he heard Sussex, from a Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate near Horsham.

So, while not technically about Sussex at all, we’re going to claim it as our own!

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