The time of year now designated as the beginning of May has long been an occasion for the celebration of seasonal change in northern Europe. The end of the winter and the beginning of the warmer weather that would lead to summer.
In Celtic times the celebration was known as Beltane. The Romans dedicated their celebrations to the Goddess Flora – cutting down a tree and decorating it with ribbons and flowers, a tradition that evolved into the tradition of the May Pole that became a staple part of May Day celebrations in England from the 16th century through until the late 19th century.
The custom seems to have died out for a number of reasons. Partly it was due to the end of the chimney sweeps – in 1875 legislation was passed that prohibited the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. It was the chimney sweeps that had become one of the main drivers of the May Day celebrations – they were renowned for creating garlands so big that they entirely covered the wearer, creating what was described as Jack in the Green. Additionally, the Victorian-era was typified by a more restrained and socially conservative view of the world – the drunken and promiscuous behaviour associated with the May Day celebrations evolved into more controlled and family-friendly occasions.
The Jack in the Green May Day celebrations were revived in Hastings from the early 1980s – led by a local group of morris dancers – an old English folk dance. Since then it has grown to become a focal point for the town – drawing dancers and performers from across the UK, as well as huge crowds watching the parade and participating in the celebrations.
On the south coast of England, a short drive or train journey from London, Hastings is the place that gives its name to the Battle of Hastings – a tipping point in English history when the invading Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold.
Following the victory, William the Conqueror (as he became known – the first Norman king of England) had a castle built at Hastings, using the earthworks of the existing Saxon castle as a foundation.
Hastings has primarily been a fishing community throughout the centuries, but isn’t blessed with a natural harbour. The fishing boats are still stored on and launched from the beach.
It was also renowned as a haven for smuggling – the natural sandstone caverns of St Clement’s Caves were expanded and used as a base for smugglers.
By the early 1800s, Hastings had become a seaside resort, but by the 1930s it was no longer seen as a fashionable destination.
Today, the historic old town of Hastings is remarkably preserved and well worth a visit.
The 2017 Festival
The weather forecast was looking ominous, my boyfriend Liviu and I gamely caught the train from London to Hastings on the bank holiday Monday for the 1st May celebrations of Jack in the Green.
As we disembarked from the train it was already raining.
We took shelter in a cafe near the station and endured a fairly miserable breakfast. I was regretting that this had been my idea.
Slightly incongruously, this was a weekend in which Hastings was also hosting an enormous motorbike rally – literally hundreds, if not thousands of motorbikes were parked along the town's foreshore and were revving up and down the streets surrounding the station.
"Is this the festival?" Liviu asked me dubiously. I Googled a bit and realised that we needed to be in the old town for the Jack in the Green action.
As soon as there was a brief break in the rain, we navigated our way into the narrow streets of the old town, and were soon surrounded by revellers with their faces painted green.
The parade soon came through the streets and it was joyous. I've never seen so many morris dancers in once place.
Having wended its way through the streets, we followed the parade up to the top of Hasting's west hill, where the revellers braved the elements for an afternoon of singing, dancing, and drinking.
It was a lot of fun.
The weather in England can be fairly unpredictable at the best of times. Hasting's Jack in the Green festival confirmed that summer is sometimes just a state of mind.