on the Jack-in-the-Green
by Pattie Lawler
published in Druid's Progress 13)
most Pagans hear of a Jack-in-the-Green, they almost always imagine either
a Green Man or Robin Hood. I was one those Pagans. Now I know better and here's
May first is, to most of us, a beginning. Spring has arrived and all life
rejoices. Not so for chimney sweeps. Perhaps your mind did a flip flop. Chimney
sweeps? Whatever do you mean? May heralds the end of the busy season for sweeps.
Who needs to have their flue cleaned in the summer heat? So May Day was a
sweep's chance to earn a few coppers before unemployment set in. But I get
ahead of myself.
Customs overlap (with only 365 chances to celebrate, they must) and milk maids
had a custom of garlanding their pails on May Day and singing through the
streets (1). No doubt a pretty sight and a well-rewarded
one, as pennies were often cast into the pails. As in all things, competitions
arose and the maids began trying to out shine (literally) their neighbors,
by collecting silver spoons, plate and tankards and arranging them in conical
forms upon their Heads (2). Eventually, even this out-grew
itself and palanquins were used to cart the borrowed plate through the streets
before the girls (3). Then added to the menagerie were
a fiddler and a drummer. Yes, this is developing into a parade, with rich
rewards to be had.
As one moved into the poorer quarters of town, one encountered the chimney
sweeps and their 'climbing boys' facing long months of little income. So the
sweeps took a cue from the maids and began their own display. Wearing their
best suits, bedecked in colored paper and gilt, garlands on their hats and
beating shovel with brush, the sweeps took to the streets (4).
Fiddle and drum were easy to come by, but what of the silver) Maintaining
the maid's conical form, by extending it to man size and covering it with
foliage, Jack-in-the-Green was born (5). Sometimes surmounted
by a green crown, sometimes with flowers, Jack joined the troupe.
By bringing a bit of the forest into the city, the sweeps enjoyed a 'locomotive
mass of foliage,' (6) to Maypole around.
A nice theory, but it won't wash.
Forced daily to risk life and limb to earn a living, sweeps no doubt longed
for a tactile sign of life outside the coal dust. By spending one day a year
dancing around a figure totally encased in living vegetation, they were in
touch with a symbol of life and renewal (7).
The recurring theme of a Lord and a Lady (usually a man in 'fancy dress')
traditionally, always have a Fool in
attendance. 'Jack' could be viewed as fulfilling the role, adding the needed
unexpected quality to the show. Parallels have been drawn between the two
and at St. Wandrille, Normandy, he is combined and represented by a foliate
This too, is far-fetched.
No, what really happened was; Lord and Lady Montagu were happily delivered
of a healthy son. While enjoying the pleasures of a noble infancy, the child
was left unattended for a crucial instant and was spirited away by gypsies.
Sold to a chimney sweep, he became a climbing boy and suffered the kind of
torment only dreamed of in romantic novels. After a particularly bad day he
either; A) was recognized by a footman of his lost family household or B)
fell asleep in Lord Montagu's bed where either a) his mother discovered him
or b) his mother discovered him and demanded to see a birthmark on his arm.
Either way, the family was reunited. Thereafter, Lady Montagu annually feasted
chimney sweeps on May 1st, the day her son was returned to her. On May 2,
1799, this appeared in the Times, 'The donations given by Mrs. Montagu, of
Portman Square, every May-day, proceed from pure benevolence towards the distressed
poor. The story which has been generally believed of her having lost a child,
who was trepanned from her house, is wholly unfounded' (10).
So, where does this leave us?
Luckily, it leaves us with a thrilling sense of wonder.
As we scan the history that appeals to us, we root out bits of things, or
whole chunks, we need to add to our days, rituals, lives. To many people,
Jack-in-the-Green is such a thing. In the early twentieth century only a handful
of old men remembered being told about Sweeps' Day/May first and yet, at Hastings
Castle, a Jack-in-the-Green can be seen on May first this year and next year
and as long as the people who need it are alive (11).
Long may they live.
1.Jones, Julia and Deer, Barbara. Cattern Cakes and Lace. Dorling Kindersley
Ltd., 1987, p. 71.
2.Judge, Roy. Jack-in-the-Green, D.S. Brewer Ltd., 1978, p.4.
4.Dickens, Charles. Sketches by Boz, Books, Inc., 1836, pp.168-9.
5.Giblin, James C. Chimney Sweeps. T.Y. Crowell, 1982, p.10.
6.Judge, p. 127.
7.Anderson, William. Green Man, Harper Collins Pub., 1990, p 149.
8.Ibid, pp. 29-30.
9.Judge, pp. 45-8.
10.Anderson, p. 9.