Christmas wishes and local customs

Postmen of the British Empire
Postcard from the private collection of Jennifer Drury

The volunteer editorial team here at My Brighton and Hove, would like to send our sincere seasonal greetings to all our visitors who celebrate Christmas. We would also hope that everyone will have a happy and healthy New Year.

To mark the season, Andy Grant, one of our team of local historians, who most of you will know from his sterling work answering queries on the Message Board, has written this topical piece.

Christmas Customs

Christmas Eve
As was practiced over much of Sussex, it was customary for groups of labouring men and boys to go Wassailing of the apple trees. This entailed the group, also known in Sussex as Howlers, singing a traditional doggerel as the trees were each rapped in turn with sticks:-

Stand fast root, bear well top
Pray the God send us a good howling crop.
Every twig, apples big.
Every bough, apples enow.
Hats full, caps full,
Full quarters, sacks full

Accompanied by a cow’s horn, a chorus or shout would be rendered by the group. After wassailing of the whole orchard, the group would then proceed to the house of the owner and sing at his door. They were then admitted to enjoy the sparkling ale and festivities of the season. It was common for a wassail bowl, consisting of ale, sugar, nutmeg, and roasted apples, to be offered to the group. It was considered to be lucky to be the first to open the house door on this festival. This practice, which was also known in other cider producing counties as ‘worzling’, was the origin of carol-singing. The lawful period of Wassailing was from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day.

Christmas Day
This day was generally regarded in Sussex as a lucky day on which to be born. It was said that “if you were born on Christmas Day, you would neither be drowned nor hanged.”

It was a custom to keep a piece of Christmas cake for twelve months to bring luck. There is a common saying in Sussex that you will have a lucky month for each different person’s pudding you taste.

St. Stephen’s Day.
The Ancient Customs of Brighton of 1581 provided that the Quarter-share of the profits of all fishing-boats should be paid to the Church­wardens on this day.

There was a curious custom in Brighton of bowling or throwing oranges along the highroads on this day. The person whose orange was hit by that of another, forfeited it to the successful “hitter.”

“Mummers” were still prevalent throughout the 19th and early 20th century in Sussex on this day, calling from house to house singing a traditional mummer’s song. In the areas around Shoreham, Southwick, Furze Hill, Hove and Portslade they were called Tip-teers or Tip-teerers. Their traditional dress was somewhat alike a clown, whilst others had paper or glazed lining costumes, each one representing a different character and carrying some form of badge (St. George, a Turk, etc. inevitably would appear).

“Sussex Folk-lore & Customs” – Sussex Archaeological Collection

Comments about this page

  • In the far off days when families made their own entertainment at Christmas, in the 1950s my grandparents would host a family party at which various family members would do a party piece. My Uncle Roy would sing a song “There was an old farmer who had an old sow..” which had a chorus consisting of whistles, grunts and noises, to a rolicking tune everyone would join in with. I had the feeling that this was an old Sussex song. Anyone heard of it?

    By Jan Sinkfield (23/12/2008)
  • The old madrigal you refer to was written and performed by Albert Richardson in 1928, although I do not believe it is a Sussex song. It was popularised in the 50’s by Rudee Vallee and later on film by Rufe Davis. Here are the words to it:-

    There was an old farmer, he had an old sow.
    Snort ow raspberry ow whistle ide-illy-dow
    Suzanna’s a funniful man
    Snort an raspberry an whistle ide-illy-dan
    Sing lassie go-rings re-low
    Suzanna’s a funniful man
    Snort an raspberry an whistle ide-illy-dan
    Suzanna’s a funniful man.

    Now, this old sow she some little pigs.
    Snort igs raspberry igs whistle ide-illy-digs, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they muddled them up.
    Snort up raspberry up whistle ide-illy-dup, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they had to have straw.
    Snort aw raspberry aw whistle ide-illy-daw, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they had some curly tails
    Snort ails raspberry ail whistle ide-illy-dails, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they had to be stuffed
    Snort uff raspberry uff whistle ide-illy-duff, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they made a bit of bacon
    Snort aton raspberry aton whistle ide-illy-daton, etc.

    Now, these little pigs they made a bit of ham.
    Snort am raspberry am whistle ide-illy-ham, etc.

    By Andy Grant (24/12/2008)
  • The song was made popular in the 1930s by an English music hall artiste called Cyril Smith, who recorded it in the USA with the great Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees in 1937. The composer credit on the label is given as ‘Smith, Vallee, Daniel’. It’s also known as ‘Susannah’s a funny old [or funnicle] man’. So probably not an old finger-in-the-ear Sussex folk song; more like finger-up-the-nose!

    By David Fisher (24/12/2008)
  • Jan, you’ll find the lyrics at:
    or just google ‘Old sow lyrics’. There seems to be many versions and the vary slightly from county to county. Enjoy singing it again. We did!

    By Andrew Bradstreet (24/12/2008)
  • This was my old Dad’s party piece, and I’ve found it performed at:

    Editor’s note: Thanks for this Dick – so funny

    By Dick Williams, Cheltenham (24/12/2008)
  • Further to my earlier response, a bit more digging indicates that this was derived from an earlier offering by an artist named Brown in 1922, although the writer was unknown. As I mentioned, Albert Richardson altered the wording of this original considerably and is credited with the first such recorded performance of the song in the Queen’s Hall, London, 14 May 1928; the resultant records were matrix 81212974-1 & Zonophone T5178.
    The American version by Rudy Valee / Cyril Smith is a different tune and has been rearranged, which is probably why they take credit for it – it is also named “The Old Sow Song” and was released on the Bluebird label in 1937. Other versions have been released, notably Leslie Sarony in 1934 and Rufe Davis (see his clip on youtube).
    Although after all this, I’m blowed if I can work out which version I can recall frequently hearing on the radio in the late 1950’s.

    By Andy Grant (24/12/2008)
  • Grew up in the 40s to 60s singing this riddle with my mum; she knew it well as she often gave little concert parties for elderly folk in and around Brighton and this was definitely a favourite. She was a lady and usually wore a long evening gown but did this riddle very well with all its whistles and snorts. Glad this is a silent page or I may be tempted to sing it out.

    By Sandra (25/12/2008)
  • Thanks all for the trip down memory lane with the ‘Old Sow’ song. It was truly wonderful to hear and I can picture my (long dead) uncle singing this at our hilarious family parties. Some of the songs were definitely not for young ears though! I’m now a woman of a certain age, but for a few moments, listening to this song, I was transported back to my childhood. Thanks to everyone who responded.

    By Jan Sinkfield (27/12/2008)
  • So, is this a composed song or a folk song? Is it a song composed from a madrigal or a composed song from 1928? Where could I find its history, and some of the other words known for this song?

    By Carolyn Shackelford (28/07/2009)
  • I’ve been running the current incarnation of the Brighton Mummers (aka Brighton Tipteers) for the past 6 years ( If anyone has any information/scripts/memories of mummers plays performed before 2007 in Brighton, we’d love to hear from you.

    By Graeme Walker (15/12/2012)
  • There are many versions and verses to this – I learned it early in the War, about 1941 I suppose. I always liked to include “Now these little pigs they took ’em to market, as you can sing “Snort ‘arket, raspberry ‘arket whistle ide-illy-‘arket.

    By John Orford (21/07/2017)

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