Jack-in-the-Green Celebrations, Hastings, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Jack-in-the-Green Celebrations, Hastings, UK

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Two Morris dancers in a ruined building

The Jack-in-the-Green celebrations were revived in Hastings in 1979, after the tradition had stopped around the turn of the century. The group responsible for reviving the tradition, Mad Jack's Morris Dancers, makes no claim that today's celebrations are an exact recreation of the earlier ones, saying:

We do not say we are following exactly what happened, this is a custom for now, not a fossil. Jack is returned, he is not the property of a small group of dancers, but belongs to us all. Long may he dance!

The Beginning of the Celebrations

1 May, May Day proper, sees drummers at the ruined Hastings Castle drumming in the dawn, marking the beginning of the festival. The May Day Bank Holiday weekend (the closest weekend to 1 May) is the time when most of the activities take place. On the Saturday and Sunday evenings there are folk bands and Morris dancers of all varieties in the pubs and streets.

The Parade

On the Bank Holiday Monday the main event takes place. A parade, headed by Jack himself with his bogies (see below) and the giants, followed by a large number of Morris sides1 starts from Hastings Old Town at 12pm, and wends its way through the town and up the hill to the ruins of the castle.

Jack himself is a 9-foot conical frame made of laurel twigs and leaves, with a leather mask peering through the foliage for a face and a crown on top - think a vaguely sinister moving Christmas tree. Historically, Jack-in-the-Green is interpreted as the winter (and thus more dangerous) side of the Green Man, an ancient mythical figure, usually thought to represent the spirit of the forest - both Herne the Hunter and Robin Hood are considered by many to be aspects of him.

The bogies are Jack's guardians for the day, for the most part burly bearded men painted green, dressed (or in some cases, half-dressed) in Robin Hood style clothing. Some of the bogies carry large drums, which are beaten to a lively rhythm throughout the parade. The bogies also carry sponges soaked in green paint, which they will attempt to dab spectators' noses with. The giants are even taller, around 12 feet and are constructed of papier mâché. Following the giants and bogies are the sweeps - blacked-up men in chimney sweeper costumes. This part of the tradition was originally a chance for sweeps, coming to the end of their busy period (who needs their chimneys swept in summer?) to beg for extra money, by dressing up in the their best suits and colourful garlands.

The many Morris sides follow the sweeps. The sides are not just the type of dancers that usually spring to mind - although white suits and bells are among the dancers, darker, more lively groups make up a large percentage of the players. Groups such as Rhythm Warrior and Rumpledrumskin, with teams of fierce drummers and scantily clad men and women dancing wildly to the beat, feature prominently, as do stick-sides such as Hunters Moon and Wylde Hunt, who really do seem to be trying to batter each other with their long sticks, while they dance to drums and fiddles. As the parade passes through the streets, there are a number of 'trickster' figures, ready to catch the unwary spectators. As well as the bogies with their paint, there is Mad Jack's Dancers' horse, Lintel with snapping jaws ready to steal people's hats, or anything else he takes a fancy to. There is also Rumpledrumskin's own trickster, Matt, always dressed in nothing but shorts, shoes and a lot of paint, drumming on any surface he can find and teasing both spectators and performers alike.

At the Castle

Once the parade reaches the castle, Jack and the bogies take residence on the hill, inside the castle walls, so Jack can reign over the afternoon's events. Stalls selling trinkets, jewellery, food and books can be found around the edge of the castle, and most importantly, a beer tent selling beer brewed especially for the occasion. Most spectators and performers will have been drinking throughout the day, but now more serious drinking can begin. Each side then takes it in turns to perform on a small stage, the more sedate performers to begin with, the mood, dancing and music will get more frenetic and dark as the afternoon builds to the main event. Three quarters of the way through the sides' dancing, a local folk singer appears to perform the celebration's anthem 'Green Man', a song which explains the tradition, celebrates Jack's existence, and calls on those present to 'dance the dance, awaken summer'.

While the last three or so sides are performing, the bogies begin drumming, first quietly, then louder and faster, seemingly in an attempt to drown out the sides' own music; this is a warning that Jack is coming soon. When the last side has finished, Jack and the bogies make their way to the stage, and Mad Jack's Men leap on to the stage and dance around Jack. At the end of the dance, the Jack is slain, his crown pulled off, and the bogies and dancers throw Jack's foliage to the crowd. These pieces are kept for good luck, and burned on the Winter Solstice. With the frame uncovered, Jack is dead, and summer has begun.

1'Side' is the term given to a Morris dancing team.

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