A beginner’s guide to an ancient pagan festival
The time of year now designated as the beginning of May has long been an occasion for the celebration of seasonal change in northern Europe. The end of the winter, and the beginning of the warmer weather that would lead to summer.
In Celtic times, the celebration was known as Beltane. The Romans dedicated their celebrations to the Goddess Flora — cutting down a tree and decorating it with ribbons and flowers. The Roman celebrations evolved into the tradition of the May Pole, which became a staple part of May Day celebrations in England from the 16th century through until the late 19th century.
The custom of welcoming in the summer seems to have died out for a number of reasons. Partly it was due to the end of the chimney sweeps — in 1875, legislation was passed that prohibited the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. It was the chimney sweeps that had become one of the main drivers of the May Day celebrations — they were renowned for creating garlands so big that they entirely covered the wearer, creating what was described as Jack in the Green. Additionally, the Victorian-era was typified by a more restrained and socially conservative view of the world — the drunken and promiscuous behaviour associated with the May Day celebrations evolved into more controlled and family-friendly occasions.
The Jack in the Green May Day celebrations were revived in Hastings from the early 1980s — led by a local group of morris dancers, an old English folk dance. Since then, it has grown to become a focal point for the town — drawing dancers and performers from across the UK, as well as huge crowds watching the parade and participating in the celebrations.
On the south coast of England, a short drive or train journey from London, Hastings is the place that gives its name to the Battle of Hastings — a tipping point in English history, when the invading Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxon king Harold.
Following the victory, William the Conqueror – as he became known, being the first Norman king of England – had a castle built at Hastings, using the earthworks of the existing Saxon castle as foundations.
Hastings has primarily been a fishing community throughout the centuries, but isn’t blessed with a natural harbour. The fishing boats are still stored on the beach from which they’re launched each day.
The region was also renowned as a haven for smuggling — the natural sandstone caverns of St Clement’s Caves were expanded and used as a base for smugglers.
By the early 1800s, Hastings had become a seaside resort. However, by the 1930s it was no longer seen as a fashionable destination.
Today, the historic old town of Hastings is remarkably preserved and well worth a visit.