TWH – While the pandemic cannot really be said to have abated in the UK, despite currently high infection rates, the UK has opened up considerably since winter and pagan celebrations n were no exception. After two years of suspension, Beltane celebrations took place across the country throughout May, from Hastings on the south coast to Edinburgh in Scotland. Here’s a look back at some of those festivities.
In Hastings, the Jack in the Green festival has been a celebration of Maytide for many years – although not very old. I attended it myself in the 1990s, but it started in 1983. It is one of many similar festivals (Jack in the Greens appears in Oxford, Knutsford, Evercreech and several other towns), which has started in England in the 1700s and emerged from an earlier sequence of parades in which milkmaids carried buckets adorned with flowers and greenery.
Samuel Pepys reports having seen one in his diary: the milkmaids were dancing behind a violinist. In 1712, The Spectator magazine referred to “the ruddy milkmaid practicing in the liveliest style under a pyramid of silver mugs”.
In addition to milkmaids, chimney sweep parades in which the sweeps sometimes cross-dressed were popular, although the sweeps generally did not wear garlands, and eventually the two seem to have merged into Jack in the Green celebrations. There is very little evidence that this was any pagan custom (however, it is now!).
Hastings’ Jack in the Green runs for four days over the May bank holiday weekend. The main event takes place on Bank Holiday Monday in which Jack is “released”. It has a following of Bogies, Black Sal, the Fat Man, as well as Mad Jack’s Morris, Dancers, Giants, Drummers and other sides of Morris. The procession passes through the city and ends on the west hill where Jack is “killed” to “release the spirit of summer”.
Hedge priestess Jacqueline Durban recalls her own role in previous festivities:
“It feels like a lifetime and more since I walked in the Bank Holiday Monday procession at the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green festival every year, but I still remember the anticipation of waiting for the Jack to be released from the fisherman’s huts in the old town, to the driving, undulating cry of “Jack is alive!”, before crossing the town and on to the castle to be symbolically killed with much rejoicing and good-humored mayhem.
I was part of the procession with the Raven Drummers for ten years and it was a real joy. I loved the feeling of bringing the community together, and one of my favorite and most sacred moments of the year was when I bowed to Jack as he passed, knowing he had come out like a voluntary sacrifice to the pulse of life and everything. it’s good. One year he bowed to me and I still haven’t fully recovered. At that time, it was absolutely real; the Jack was, and is, the walking Earth Spirit…
… We live in a culture where the appeal is to celebrate pomp and war, rather than the life, traditions and resistance of ordinary people. The Hastings Jack, and others like him, are symbols of this resistance, resurgent every year. Many of our May Day traditions were born out of a determination to reconnect to a land and a way of being that had in many ways been lost/stolen from us when we sold ourselves to the lie of prosperity in towns and villages during the Industrial Revolution, much like the sculptures of the Greenman may have developed as a protest against Norman oppression 800 years before. Jack-in-the-Green reminds us that we weren’t born to be slaves.
And so this is a reminder that every year on Hastings West Hill at around half past three on Bank Holiday Monday in May, the Jack-in-the-Green is symbolically killed and the Spirit of Summer is set free to dance through every leaf and branch, every petal and root, every wing, paw and fin, every heart, mind and voice, every mycelial thread and shimmering web, every stagnant corner where power is unduly and cruelly held, every place where the injustice seeks to take root.”
At the Welsh borders, May celebrations are also held.
“Clun is a Shropshire hill town that has struggled between winter and summer for many years. I have no idea how long it lasts. There’s a general village-fete feel to it. It’s a time of fun and celebration,” said Druid Elaine Gregory. TWH.
The Green Man and Frosty the Snow Queen argue over the arrival of spring in Clun. After his victory, the Green Man led a parade adorned with garlands on the grounds of Clun Castle. Usually it takes place on the bridge of Clun, but the festival has been moved this year and will resume at its usual place in 2023.
The Edinburgh Beltane celebrations are also back. On the evening of April 30, several thousand people gathered on Calton Hill in central Edinburgh.
The Beltane Fire Festival involves around three hundred volunteer performers, marking the end of Scottish winter and, according to organizers, including the May Queen and the Green Man, as well as “very exciting drumming, fire shows, acrobatics, body paint, nudity, and hordes of otherworldly creatures, including Beastie Drummers and Red Men, exhibiting “uninhibited demeanor”.
Like Hastings, this festival dates back to the 1980s: a period of revival of folk customs across the UK, which draws directly from our ideas of how our ancient ancestors celebrated Beltane.
Butser Ancient Farm, on the edge of the South Downs National Park, north of Portsmith, also resumed its annual Beltane celebration, with the burning of a huge wicker man.
With celebrations across the country including Glastonbury, Bristol, London, Rochester, Padstow and Helston Flora Day, May Day and Beltane celebrations in the UK are back in full force.