Jack in the Green is both the name of a character in folklore and of a traditional event associated with May Day celebrations in which he is the central figure. His general appearance is that of a giant bush who dances around the neighbourhood accompanied by musicians and other characters. Each Jack in the Green has its own particular customs while broadly following the same tradition. But although Jack is a traditional figure, he is perhaps not as ancient or mystical as we might like to believe.
Theories about the origins of Jack in the Green include claims that he is the personification of nature, a spirit worshipped since prehistoric times; that he is an ancient fertility symbol; that he was a figure who sported in medieval May Revels; that he is associated with Gawain and the Green Knight; with the woodland-dwelling Robin Hood; or is a manifestation of John Barleycorn, the spirit of the harvest; or a green man of ancient European traditions, his likeness to be found in the foliate carved heads of churches. There is no evidence for these claims, so, like Father Christmas, you can choose whether or not to believe, but can still enjoy the idea of the character and his antics!
What is recorded is that Jack in the Green was a figure in a May Day custom carried out by eighteenth and nineteenth-century chimney sweeps, which in turn had probably grown from a custom first practised by milkmaids in London in the late seventeenth century. The milkmaids would parade the streets on May Day carrying large garlands in the hope of collecting money from onlookers. Eventually their garlands became more extravagant and were worn on the head. As different trade guilds became established, each took up this practice and began to compete with one another to create the most elaborate garland and thus collect the most money.
For chimney sweeps, May Day marked the end of their busy season, so there was a real need for extra money to help them through the summer. The sweeps built a garland-bedecked structure large enough to cover an entire man, who would dance, twirl and jump energetically while the other sweeps danced around him clattering their shovels. So the sweeps’ tradition of Jack-in-the-Green was born. This was an urban, rather than rural custom, spreading from London to the towns and cities of the southern counties. The custom seems to have died out towards the end of the nineteenth century, some folklorists attribute this to the 1875 Chimney Sweepers Act which prevented small boys from climbing up chimneys, or to the cleaning up and prettification of May Day by the late Victorians – it appears the sweeps’ revelry was an alcohol-fuelled and raucous event. The custom was brought to the newly-built and prestigious part of Hastings, St Leonards, by a chimney sweeping family in the 1840s. The last recorded sighting of this original Jack was on May Day 1884.
The Hastings Jack in the Green was revived 99 years later by a local Morris side, Mad Jack’s Morris, and particularly by Keith Leech, a dancer and expert on English folklore. He had witnessed European customs and felt that the revival of English traditions could help us to understand and appreciate those of other cultures. The first outing of the new Jack took place with a group of Morris dancers and one green man dressed in a flowery shirt and tights. They had a small Jack made from bamboo canes and garden wire covered in greenery, which fell apart as soon as anyone danced with it and had frequently to be repaired with sellotape and string. Luckily Hastings Council had the foresight to support and encourage the event. Thirty years later it is attended by thousands from all over the world. The 2013 festival was filmed for a TV programme in South Korea. The festival takes place over the May Day bank holiday weekend, leading up to which the houses, pubs, shops, railings and lampposts of the town are festooned with ribbons and leaves. The weekend is centred on Morris dancing and live music, and features the usual May Day customs, the crowning of a May Queen and maypole dancing. However, the top of the bill event is the Jack-in-the-Green procession on bank holiday Monday. It has been argued that Morris dancers would not have been part of the original sweeps’ tradition. But the nature of a custom is that it changes, develops and is added to by each community that carries it out.
The Hastings Jack itself is a built on a conical wooden framework based on that of Catalan giants. It is about three metres tall and a metre wide, covered completely with fresh leaves, wearing a face mask and bearing a floral crown from which ribbons stream down. Nominated men take turns to climb inside the structure and dance the Jack along the hilly processional route around Hastings old town to the West Hill and Hastings Castle. To be inside the Jack can be a heady mixture of elation and responsibility. The Jack is heavy and you can barely see out, but someone told me that once inside you feel so excited you want to run and jump, and on one occasion he became over-confident and fell over, which apart from being hurt, upset him as he felt he had somehow spoilt the magic of the day. Many cultural traditions, religious rituals and observances come about for practical and even mundane reasons. The Hastings Jack is escorted by twelve men dressed in green, who dance or drum alongside him all day. These are the bogies, the official caretakers of Jack. In the beginning Jack was guided by Morris men, their white costumes becoming green-stained from keeping close. Even in the early years people along the route were captivated by the sight of the procession and would try to take a piece of the greenery to keep for themselves. So for practical and safety reasons, it was decided that a group of men, wearing green-leaved suits to blend in, would guide the Jack to keep people from being run over and prevent the structure from being stripped bare before the end of the procession. The idea of the green suits was taken directly from the leaf-covered green men of European tradition, but the bogies suits are covered in rag strips to represent leaves. The bogies have a mischievous nature, greening the noses, bald heads, or worse, of anyone in close proximity. One year another group of green men appeared, but all dressed in fantastically theatrical costumes, which led to their being referred to as the gay bogies. This actually turned out to be the case, and the gay bogies have since become a traditional part of the Hastings event.
Gallery images all by Chris Parker.
Black Sal is a reconstruction of the nineteenth century sweeps figure. She is Jack’s consort and remains with him all day. Milkmaids reflect the origins of the custom; ‘the fat man with the drum’ is another nineteenth-century character always dressed in red, in contrast to everyone else. Giants from around the country, as well as from Hastings, regularly take part unless the weather is too bad. At sunrise on the first Monday in May, the bogies begin drumming on the hills above the town, gradually working their way towards the fishermen’s museum beside the tall black net huts on the sea front, where they will remain locked away with the Jack until it is time for the him to be ‘released’. Odd groups of outlandish yet familiar characters begin to appear, meanwhile mysterious drumming from within the museum mingles with faint jingling as Morris dancers from all over the country make their way down the steps from the cliffs. To step out onto the street is to step onto the stage when you are in costume, and at once the unreality takes hold. Excitement mounts as crowds gather and at around 10 o’clock Jack and the bogies burst out of the museum, perform a dance, then take their place at the head of a procession of dancers, musicians, drummers local people and visitors, in costume or not, as they wish. The sweep and his family take pride of place close behind the Jack in acknowledgment of the festival’s origins. Customs and their associated symbolism are the inventions of people, and can sometimes have prosaic beginnings. The event needed a ceremonial ending. The idea of slaying the Jack developed. But no-one knew how to get rid of all the foliage. It was decided that the Jack would be stripped, it would be said this was to release the spirit of summer, and the leaves would be distributed amongst the crowd. This is now a climactic and moving element of the celebration, a custom in its own right. It is bad luck to take a piece, it must be given to you. It has also become the custom to burn your leaf on the Hastings bonfire in the autumn, thus connecting with another event which marks the cycle of the year.
Costumes at the event range from flamboyant to understated; extravagantly well-made to quickly bunged together; from a green t-shirt and a smudge of face paint to a skilfully constructed wicker man! There is no competition, everything adds to the overall effect. One of our favourite outfits was spotted last year, a fishmonger at the edge of the procession in his apron with a bunch of parsley behind his ear. It just seemed right! The Hastings Jack-in-the-Green procession seems to have great appeal for most people who come across it, whatever their age or background, including many who would never have believed they would find themselves enjoying, let alone taking part in such an event. It is an opportunity for freedom of expression, for letting go and sharing something special with hundreds of other people. It is a human experience. It is strange that a fake bush with a person inside can have such a powerful effect. Yet that is his magic. As much as releasing the spirit of summer, the Jack-in-the-Green releases our imaginations. We are free to pretend and to play; to take part in something other than our everyday lives in whichever way we choose, whether we dress up, paint our faces, dance or play an instrument, or watch the procession from the side, everyone is drawn in to become part of the whole spectacle.