Every year on the first Monday of May, a strange parade cascades through the streets of a quiet seaside town. A resplendent figure adorned in a cloak of leaves and a flower crown leads his merry band of Morris dancers, monsters, spirits, and samba bands as they weave through the cobbled streets. As the Jack reaches the West Hill overlooking the town, he is ceremoniously slain and the spirit of summer is released from within.
May Day has long been an important day in English folklore and is celebrated as the start of summer by many European pagan cultures. The Celts referred to it as Beltane, whereas the Romans would worship the goddess Flora by decorating a tree with ribbons and flowers.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, people in England began making garlands of flowers and leaves to see in the coming of summer. As time progressed, these garlands became increasingly elaborate. Various guilds would try to outdo each other. London milkmaids would decorate their garlands with vast amounts of silver objects while chimney sweeps would weave leaves and branches in theirs. As the competition continued into the 18th century, the chimney sweeps’ garlands became so big they covered the men entirely, making them look a bit like walking Christmas trees. Thus the rowdy celebration became known as Jack in the Green.
This strange celebration began declining around 1889, with the custom completely dying out by the 1900s. The reasons were twofold: a recently passed act that stopped boys from climbing in the chimneys reduced the amount of chimney sweeps and the Victorians viewed the phallic maypoles and drunken antics with disdain. The Lord and Lady of the May, with their raunchy practical jokes, were replaced by a pretty May Queen. The noisy Jack in the Green was booted out of the May Day celebration altogether.
Thankfully, Jack in the Green was revived in Whitstable, Kent in 1976. Nearby Rochester followed suit in 1980, with Hastings close behind in 1983. The Hastings precession has now become the largest and most celebrated of the Jack in the Green celebrations, with crowds of green-clad revellers partaking in all the raucous fun.
Know Before You Go
The celebration takes place all weekend but you'll want to get there early on the Bank-Holiday Monday.