It’s Spring in the northern hemisphere and in a little town called Hastings on the south-eastern coast of England they’re about to go a bit mad in one of the biggest and strangest long weekends of the year. Warning! This post contains more than a few traces of Morris dancing.
There’s nothing more miserable in my experience than the tail-end of an English winter. By around February it starts to feel like the sun will never really shine again. All the colour seems drained from the world and the cold has had months to work its damp, dreary way right into your bones.
Just when you think you can stand it no more along comes Spring, peeping its way through the murk with splashes of bluebells and yellow daffodils and a rising of the spirit that makes you want to break out a bit of the old Jethro Tull and dance naked in the woods with a garland of flowers. Well, it affects some of us that way.
Hong Kong was a British colony so I was not entirely unfamiliar with the strange custom adopted by some English men to dress up in funny clothes and wave hankies at each other in public. But nothing prepared me for the spectacle of the Jack-in-the-Green festival which takes over Hastings each year in May.
Morris dancing is one of those English oddities which, a bit like Scotland’s Highland Games, you can take as you will – a revival of something ancient or a modern fancy of a Ye Olden Tyme that probably never really was.
In Hastings what started in 1983 as an obscure little Morris dancing competition has grown into a riotous celebration of the start of summer which attracts hankie wavers from around the world and, with the coming of the May, I know where I’d rather be.
Central to the festivities is a dancing bush, the eponymous Jack-in-the-Green. His origins are lost in the mists of time but you’ll find him lurking in the stonework of medieval churches throughout Europe.
Jack, also known as the Green Man, is everywhere once you start to look. He is usually depicted as a leaf-wreathed head, sometimes disgorging leaves, fruits and flowers or animal and human figures from his mouth.
He’s been associated with the Roman Dionysus and the Celtic Curnunnos but his image can be found in artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia and even India, where one of the earliest depictions of a disgorging head appears on an 8th Century CE Jain temple in Rajasthan.
There is no evidence linking his image to any particular philosophy or belief but he has been enthusiastically adopted by Neopaganists as an embodiment of the male principal in the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Jack’s ubiquitous presence across ancient cultures supports his role as a fertility god, as does his constant association with lush, sprouting vegetation and the sap which rises in the spring.
In England he became a central character in 16th century May Day celebrations and was adopted in the 19th century by chimney sweeps as their mascot in the May Day parades. There’s an echo of that tradition in the presence of the black-faced, rag-clad sweeps who form part of the Hastings festivities.
But the predominant colour is green and it’s hard to attend any part of the proceedings without getting some part of your anatomy daubed with the colour of the moment.
For the really keen, celebrations begin at dawn on the first day of May when local ‘sides’ as teams of Morris dancers are known, celebrate Spring in the Ladies’ Parlour, part of an Iron Age fort on the West Hill overlooking the town and the focus for much of the festivities.
The fort was strengthened by William the Conqueror shortly after he turned up to say g’day and the ruins of his later castle surround the flat area known as the Ladies’ Parlour in a renewal analogy which only adds to the power of the occasion.
From that first jingle of bell, wave of hanky and tap of wood to welcome in the May there’s no escaping Morris men and women in Hastings Old Town for the rest of the weekend.
Mad Jack’s Morris and their co-hosts, the all-female side Hannah’s Cat, lead energetic displays around the town until things really get going on the morning of the bank holiday Monday.
At 10am the Jack is released to a frankly lascivious welcome from Mad Jack’s Women and the parade begins. Jack, the foliage-covered focus of the weekend, is attended by an honour guard of green-clad ‘Bogies,’ who lead the procession of fantastical giants and Morris dancers through the Old Town.
In the pub-lined High Street there’s a judiciously placed stop for refreshment and, yes, more dancing, before the parade reforms and heads up the West Hill, drummed in to the castle ruins by the Bogies who keep up a riotous presence around the Jack, high on a slope overlooking the Ladies’ Parlour.
It’s a coincidental fact that the famously inclement British weather tends to smile on the occasion and most years are marked by sunshine glittering on the sea below and glistening on the sweat-beaded brows of the indefatigable Morris men and women who now get down to the serious business of showing off their moves over the next few hours.
It all builds to a rather earthy climax, driven by the unmistakably urgent drumming of the Bogies who finally lead the Jack down to the stage where he is symbolically slain to release the Spirit of Summer for another year.
Whatever you think of all this, there’s something powerfully disturbing to the modern cynic at the sight of children literally tearing the slain Jack to pieces and emerging from the melee proudly clutching a piece of foliage which, in many Old Town homes, will be kept until it is replaced the following year.
Just as the Green Man’s original rites are forever lost, so too are the precise origins of the Morris. It’s possible that its name is a corruption of ‘Moorish’ and the tradition has undoubtedly been around in some form for centuries.
Mad Jack’s Morris makes no claim to be following exactly what happened in days of yore but their modern version of what may have been sweeps majestically past the twee reconstruction of village maypoles and pretty maids to recall something older, darker and far more interesting.
The spirit of the Green Man, it seems, is unquenchable, no matter how many efforts have been made over the centuries to tame him. The sap rises, the earth quickens and, in Hastings at May time, the dance goes on.
Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull – There is a Jack in the Green on the album, but the title track’s better, in the humble opinion of your (fully clothed) Girl Reporter, and this clip includes Scenes from the Wood. You know it makes sense.
What is Jack-in-the-Green? – from the Hastings Traditional Jack in the Green site
Break out the bells and sticks: Morris dancing is back – The Telegraph, 20 April 2014
Green Man (Foliate Head, Jack-of-the-Green) – from the Symbols Dictionary