Jack in the Green, SussexOne of the many folkie revivals that have gone on to become established customs in themselves, the Jack in the Green event in Hastings is now a major draw for the town as regards visitors, as well as a special day for the townspeople.
Though those of a new age bent like to see the thing as a continuation of ancient celebrations of summer’s coming all the misty way back to the Romans and the Celts, they are in all likelihood only partly correct, as the most plausible explanation of the custom links it to chimney sweeps having a good time on May Day, though still dating back to the 18th century, and possibly the century before. It seems that rival trade groups – milkmaids, sweeps, carters and so on – paraded in urban areas on May Day, and that the strange conical figure of Jack in the Green evolved from this, as a way of the sweeps outdoing the garb and garlands of all the rest.
The tradition died out by the beginning of the 20th century thanks to chimney climbing boy-sweeps no longer being allowed in the work, and the impact of Victorian stuffiness regarding traditional celebrations: dainty May Queens were in, drunken sweeps (and men dressed as women with them) were out.
Revived in Hastings in 1983 and taken ever onwards since then, the day there includes a procession from the Fisherman’s Museum to the Castle , which at one or more points involves drinking beer merely for the sake of authenticity. In the procession along with the Jack are bogies - garlanded, green-faced and drumming; 12 foot giants with attendants; Morris sides; story-tellers and (inevitably) street entertainers. The event ends at the castle with the slaying of Jack by Morris dancers, and the distribution of twigs and leaves from him to the crowds – a bit confusing as the greenery in such processions is normally symbolic of summer’s arrival rather than winter’s departure. But it’s fun, musical and noisy, and a good excuse for a pint or two.
More British Folk Customs?