Jack in the Green means it all gets a bit mad in Hastings Old Town on May Day Bank Holiday and if you head down there you’ll probably go home with a green nose. Jack in the Green, a festival of fun, frolics and foliage, celebrating the start of spring, takes place over the first weekend of May and culminates in a bizarre procession through the town on Bank Holiday Monday.
Jack in the Green
A traditional May Day character symbolising winter, Jack, is at the heart of the festivities and leads the procession through the narrow streets. The custom originally started as part of English May Day celebrations with townsfolk creating Jack’s garland of flowers and leaves which gradually became more elaborate until ultimately he was covered from head to foot in foliage and became known as Jack in the Green. The custom died out in the early 1900s, the bawdy displays frowned upon and Jack replaced with the demure Queen of the May. Some believe Jack goes back further and has more pagan connections.
In Hastings, however, Jack is back – and with a vengeance! The parade kicks off with ‘The Gathering’ at the lofty, black, net huts in Rock-a-Nore Road in Hastings Old Town and here the greening begins. Jack’s attendants, aka the Bogies, bedecked in green rags and foliage started their drumming and the crowd cheers as Jack, a towering vision of vegetation with crown atop, is released into the town. Part man, part bush and big part alcohol the Bogey is Jack’s friend and minder. The Bogies and Black Sal, Jack’s consort, accompany Jack through the town up to Hastings Castle. If they spot anyone on the way who isn’t green enough they’ll soon sort it with a dab of green face-paint to the nose or, if you’re not quite so lucky, a face full…
Jack in the Green Hastings
Sussex Morris Sides
The procession consists of Mad Jack’s Morris a local Morris side responsible for the revival of the current festival. Behind them the Sweeps, brushes held aloft are followed by Hannah’s Cat Morris, a women’s side, dressed in purple and pink, who dance and flick their handkerchiefs as they go. The Lovely Ladies and Gay Bogies are all dressed to impress and have some of the more elaborate costumes – a hat topped with a stuffed raven, a stag head dress and every shade of green. Some are quite folksy others more neo-pagan and slightly Goth. Various Morris Sides jingle along, clacking their sticks whilst musicians and drummers make up the rest of the parade.
The Hastings Giants
Following up the rear are the towering Mollies or Giants made from papier Mache and standing around 12 feet tall. Each one represents a local town; the form of the giant depends on the town’s history and traits.
The day dawned bright and sunny and the crowds jostled, keen to get a good view. Many were dressed in green, some with garlands in their hair others, like me, with green noses. All the while music filled the air, infectious rhythms and beats weaving their magic through the crowds. The sunshine added to the atmosphere together with anticipation of the summer after a long, dark winter. Oh, and the pubs opened early.
The quirky procession made its way through the town and up the steep hill to the castle, with more than a few refreshment stops on the way. As Jack arrived “Twiggy”, a bundle of twigs, was hoisted to the top of the flagpole while the procession was drummed in by the Bogies.
At this point the Morris Sides take to the stage for a dance-off so each can showcase their signature dance. The food stalls sell tasty snacks; a craft fair offers home-made goods and, of course, there’s the obligatory beer tent. When the dance-off ends the Bogies march Jack down to the stage their drumming becoming louder and more frenzied. Finally, poor Jack, the symbol of winter, is slain by Mad Jack’s Morris Men, and the spirit of spring is released so we can look forward to the summer to come. Well we can live in hope…
Do you have any strange and quirky festivals where you live? Do share…