Happy Mayday, everyone!
This is a post I’ve been sitting on since I got back from the UK last year. You don’t really get Mayday celebrations outside Europe – at least not in any big way where I grew up.
In Hastings, however, May 1st involves a three-day festival called Jack in the Green.
Ricky had been telling me about Jack in the Green from back in Korea and I was really excited to finally be able to experience the pagan party to welcome in summer for myself.
Because Jack in the Green is about just that: in pagan tradition, May 1st heralds the warming of the weather as well as the lengthening of the days. Morris dancers, drummers, processions of Bogies, giants, and green-skinned folk follow the Jack through town until he is slain on the third day to release the spirit of summer.
A few days before, the Old Town bedecked itself with bright green foliage, branches, and garlands set above the doors and hanging from windows. Bright pink and purple ribbons flapped merrily in the sea breeze, brightening the place up considerably.
Business establishments and private homes alike decorated their fronts and Ricky and I went around snapping photos with the earnestness of photographic snipers.
Come the day of though, the buildings paled in comparison to the colourful characters dressed up in full costume with skin painted green, red, or black and wearing wreathes of flowers in their hair.
You could hardly get through the main street for all the people spilling from the pubs, pints in hand, swerving drunkenly as they called out to their friends.
Sometimes a break in the crowd would form enough for some Morris Dancers or Bogies to get in some boogies. This was done to live music, the drummers and fiddlers striking up a lively tune to add to the festive din.
Giant heads of papier-mâché swayed above us as a drumming circle congregated into a teeming, frenzied mass of beats.
Dozens gathered on the balcony above to watch while more pressed up against the side of the courtyard to get a good view and some space to dance along in time to the rhythm.
Everyone was in the full spirit of things. It made me really happy to see that it was an intergenerational affair: the young, the old, and all the middle ages in between gathered together.
Whether out on a binge drink, sipping a quiet coffee, or enjoying the freespiritedness of the whole affair, there way something for everyone. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an extreme mixing of lifestyles in a single celebration.
We missed the crowning of the May Queen, but walked down to the newly opened pier instead where all manner of fun, bright things were spinning around and churning stomachs full of candy floss.
A merry-go-round took up the main thoroughfare, but there were also (ludicrously expensive) carnival games to play like hook-a-duck and more (thankfully free) Morris dancing to watch.
Local schools had donated decorations, and these colourful flags flapped happily in the wind.
It seemed like everywhere you went people were munching fish and chips, walking windswept looking dogs, or otherwise enjoying everything the lovely day had to offer – like adorable ice cream carts straight out of the turn of the century.
Actually, the entire view of the Hastings seafront from here still channeled a distinctly Victorian vibe. The architecture is jarring compared to the modern day clothing not to mention cars zooming on the roads in front.
I also managed to get a group shot of some of the Morris dancers. They cheerfully insisted that I had to get in the shot as well, and I shyly acquiesced, secretly very pleased indeed.
By this time, we started to head back. Completely unrelated to Jack in the Green, yet an inextricable companion to Hasting Mayday celebrations, is also one of the largest gathering of motorcycles at any given time in the country.
This run has been going for over 34 years now, and has been growing every year. Tens of thousands of motorcyclists roar their way to the seafront where they set up stalls for food and equipment and talk bikes. Some come as far as Germany to take part.
After admiring some particularly blinged out rides, we decided to head back into the main part of town and get some food. Wafting barbecue smoke from Polish sausages, fresh-flipped burgers, and searing onions met our nostrils and made our stomachs rumble nearly as loud as the motorcycles.
We devoured our food still piping hot.
While licking the grease from our fingers, we admired the store fronts’ decorations. A particularly cheeky display involved two Barbies involved in some spring time “frolicking” of their own like a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Most others were quite a lot less rude, however, and sold all manner of things from your own Jack plaque for the garden, to sunglasses and incense.
I even picked up a flower crown of my own to wear.
It was so lively, so happy, so spirited being in the Old Town. Every terrasse was occupied, every establishment fuller to the brim than the fresh pulled pint glasses being handed out by the dozen.
The day was winding down, but we were only two days into the festivities so far and had the slaying of the Jack to look forward to the next day.
We debated getting up before dawn to watch the sun rise with the other dedicated festival goers, but decided that we didn’t want to spend the whole of the next day grumpy without adequate sleep. Thus we headed down in the late morning.
There was a thick overcast that day compared to the bright sun of the day before. As the rain spat in halfhearted bursts, it didn’t feel all that much like the start of summer.
We’d missed the Grand Procession leading the Jack through the streets, but had we been there we would have seen Bogies, Black Sal, Morris Dancers, The Sweeps and the May Queen, the Lovely Ladies and Gay Bogies, Giants, drummers, and of course the Jack itself.
I’d been a bit fuzzy on what the “Jack” was exactly, and was a bit horrified by the idea of “slaying” something like some ancient Aztec blood sacrifice, even if it was just in show.
I need not have worried, however, because as we got to the top of West Hill and the Procession arrived, I saw that the Jack was a Christmas tree shaped cone stuck with fresh branches – nothing humanoid in the least.
As the drums reached their primal soul-pumping crescendo, the Morris Dancers flapping their white handkerchiefs in the air and jangling their bells with every step, the Bogies “slayed” the Jack by pulling out the branches and tossing them into the whooping crowd.
While this was happening, as if the ritual had tugged some cosmic rigging, the clouds opened like stage curtains and the sun shone radiant and sure down on the bright green leaves.
The spirit of summer released indeed.
And with that, Jack in the Green wrapped up.
There are some moments you wish didn’t have to end, and this was definitely one of them. Any and all Mayday celebrations from now on will pale in comparison. I feel like I was spoiled with my first experience being the best of the bunch.
Though I can’t bring this wild drum-infused party with me, I might just make it a tradition to hang a bough above my door in my own quiet celebration to remember.
How do you celebrate Mayday?
For related posts, check out my celebration of the Winter Solstice (inspired somewhat from having been to Jack in the Green).