Tree Pointing Day is held annually in early April in many southern counties of England but particularly in East Sussex.
The origins of tree pointing day are obscure but are believed to be pagan. There are also similarities with tree pointing and the ‘Tree God’ Lauma of Baltic mythology whose followers would point to trees on the first day of winter.
The earliest reference to tree pointing is 897AD when Alfred the Great’s biographer, the Welsh monk ‘Asser’ mentions it in his “Life of King Alfred” (Chapter 79). He records that whilst en-route to the Sussex coast the king stopped to watch ‘pointinge at a great oak’.
It is possible that a mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex depicts a man pointing at a tree but it is unclear whether this is a part of a tree pointing ceremony.
The practice was prevalent in mediaeval Sussex when upwards of 100 people would gather to point at a particular tree in the village. This was possibly the largest tree although there are several references to pointing at saplings to encourage their growth. There is a reference in the Arlington Church records dated 6thNovember 1501 to ‘3 farings (farthings) payied for ye parson for ye ancient cuftom of poynting at ye boughs’
It is clear that the practice declined after the Reformation but was briefly mentioned by historian Mark Antony Lower in the Sussex Archaeological Collections of 1867. He says that Tree Pointing Day was still observed across Sussex with instances recorded at Steyning, Horsham, Crowborough and Ninfield. In Southover, Lewes in 1846 there was a fight between railway navvies and men from the parish when it was discovered that the relevant ‘tree’ pointing’ tree (just south of Southover High Street) had been cut down during the building of the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway. Tree pointing was so popular in Alfriston in the late 1800s that one enterprising local, Maud Diplock would gather sticks and sell them to visitors who had come to watch the ceremony.
Tree pointing was also mentioned in ‘The Old Straight Track’ by Alfred Watkins (1932) although he mistakenly links the practice to ‘Beating the Bounds’ probably because traditionally the same type of wood (Ash) is used.
This photo shows tree-pointing in Alfriston on 3rd November 1931 when just five people attended.