Sunday, April 17, 2016

Making Mischief and Merry

A male face, with a beard of foliage, peers out of a surrounding of leaves and vines with narrowed eyes and an expression that is either anger or laughter; the folkloric figure of the Green Man is hard to define. Ostensibly a pagan symbol of fertility or a sprit of nature, he is most often found carved in wood or stone as an architectural ornament in churches - or on the signs of many eponymous pubs.

As an emblem of rebirth associated with the growth of spring and the onset of summer, the Green Man is also something of a Puckish figure. Robin Hood and Peter Pan are sometimes claimed as distant relations, as is the Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this 14th century Arthurian romance, Sir Gawain is challenged and tested by the laughing knight who, at the tale's conclusion, is revealed to be something of a shape-shifting trickster.

A closer relation of the Green Man is Jack in the Green. The English tradition of making garlands for participants in May Day parades developed, in the 17th century, to the extent that the leader became covered from head to foot in flowers and leaves; this figure became known as Jack in the Green, a riotous and ribald character. The Victorians frowned on such anarchic behaviour, of course, and May Day parades were sanitised as Jack was supplanted by the more anodyne May Queen.

In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence: mostly revived by local Morris dancers, there are now a dozen Jack in the Green parades that take place throughout southern England each May Day. The most prominent are at Deptford in London, Whitstable in Kent and Hastings.

Hastings' Jack in the Green May Day festival is a four-day hedonistic affair in the Old Town area of the East Sussex resort. The long weekend of merriment, music and Morris dancing includes performances by the Copper Family and Now and Then, and culminates on the Bank Holiday Monday with a wild costumed parade. Setting off in the morning from the fishermen's huts at Rock-a-Nore, Jack is attended by his mischief-making Bogies and other characters, such as Black Sal. The procession finishes with revels on West Hill and the day concludes with the slaying of Jack to release the spirit of summer.

Hastings Jack in the Green May Day Festival is on 29th April - 2nd May 2016. There is more information here.

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