The Jack-in-the-Green Festival - Morris Dancing and Mayhem on May Day

Join one of the most bizarre festivals in the UK

Green Man in Hastings
Jonny Thompson courtesy of Hastings Council

On May Day in Hastings, Jack-in-the-Green stumbles and twirls along the High Street like a drunken Christmas tree. He's followed by mad looking revelers in green face paint. It might look like an ancient Druid ritual. But it's not.

In fact, though the origins of the Jack-in-the-Green tradition are lost in time, they've only been celebrating this way in Hastings since 1983.

Who is Jack-in-the-Green?

May Day has been celebrated as the start of summer in England since ancient times. In the 16th and 17th centuries, people made elaborate garlands. Different trades and guilds competed with each other to create the biggest and best. The chimney sweeps garlands were so big, they covered a man, and then some. The costume became known as Jack-in-the-Green and the wearer was a May Day character in his own right.

Blame the Victorians

In Hastings, Jack-in-the-Green had been paraded through the town for centuries. Then a combination of Victorian attitudes and changing laws put a stop to it all. Banning boys from working as chimney sweeps' was part of the demise of the tradition. But the real culprit was Victorian prudishness. Local worthies disapproved of the wild, drunken and sexy atmosphere around May Day. So they put a stop to it.

That wasn't the only lusty, fertility-related May Day spectacle the Victorians cleaned up. Today's maypole, a slender, ribbon decorated pole around which children with flowers in their hair dance is a Victorian innovation. So is the Queen of the May. The original, maypole was a fat phallic symbol, thrust into the earth. the Lord and Lady of the May a pair of sexy pranksters.

The drunken revelry of the working people associated with Jack-in-the-Green was too much for the Victorians, so Jack-in-the-Green was banished.

A 20th Century Revival

In the mid 1980s, A Hastings Morris Dancing troup, Mad Jack's Morris revived the tradition, inviting other Morris Dancing groups to join them in a four-day festival over the Early May Bank Holiday weekend. Today, Hastings' two troups, Mad Jack's and Hannah's Cat, host a huge four day festival with Morris Dance groups joining in from all over the UK and Europe. In fact, it's one of the biggest gatherings of Morris dancers in Britain.

What Happens?:

There are ceilidhs, church services, the crowning of Queen of the May, all kinds of music - traditional and contemporary. The culmination, on Bank Holiday Monday, is the Procession. Early in the day, the Jack is released from the Fishermen's Museum. He's led through the town, accompanied by costumed attendants, known as Green Bogies, and at least a thousand followers, most of them wearing green make-up and green, leafy costumes. The whole crowd is accompanied by drumming, raucous chanting, jingling bells, clapping sticks and lots and lots of Morris dancing. At the end of the procession, he's led to the hilltop ruins if Hastings Castle. There, he's symbolically killed to free the spirit of summer. Spectators can take home pieces of his "green" for luck.

Essentials of Hastings' Jack-in-the-Green Festival:

  • What: A 4-day celebration of Morris dancing and traditional merriment, centering on the symbolic figure of Jack-in-the-Green and culminating in a wild costumed parade - one of the most bizarre in Britain.
  • When: May Bank Holiday weekend.
  • Where: Various locations around Hastings Old Town, starting at the Old Fishermen's Huts in Rock-a-Nore Road and finishing at Hastings Castle.
  • Visit the website to see an excellent video that gives a real flavor of this wild event. You'll see a few of the Morris Dancers apparently in black face, an element that is controversially misunderstood in the current environment. In fact, they are meant to be the chimney sweeps, their faces blackened with coal dust and ash, who were a key part of the original festival.

More Jack-in-the-Green Festivals

Since being revived in Hastings, Jack-in-the-Green has made a comeback in several other cities and towns. You can find him on May Day Bank Holiday across England's south and southwest in:

  • Bristol - The nine-foot-tall Bristol Jack appears at the MShed on Bristol Harbour early on the first Saturday in May (May 4 in 2019) and parades up to Horfield Common. His full route is described on the website.
  • Oxford - You have to get up early for this one. The Jack usually appears on May Morning, at around 6 a.m. near Magdalen Tower. It's part of Oxford's May Morning celebrations and the dancing and festivities continue on to the Ashmolean Museum, lasting until at least midday (though the Christmas tree-like figure of Jack-in-the-Green has usually retired from the celebrations by around 9 a.m.This is actually a huge town and gown May Day celebration in Oxford. 
  • Deptford The Fowlers Troup & Deptford Jack-in-the-Green go out on May Day morning in South East London or the City of London. You'll have to contact them through their website because this one is small and almost secret. But it usually takes place around midday and starts at The Dog&Bell on Prince Street in Deptford. This "Jack" is a bit like a Christmas tree covered in leaves and flowers - except that there's a man inside it. The challenge, for both locals and visitors is to be lucky enough to sight the Jack.  Watch a video of the 2017 event. 
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