Posts Tagged ‘Jack-in-the-Green’

The outbreak into beauty which Nature makes at the end of April and beginning of May excites so joyful and admiring a feeling in the human breast, that there is no wonder the event should have at all times been celebrated in some way. – May 1st, Chambers’ Book of Days”

Inquiring readers, 

Ah, the merry month of May, when flowers bloom in the meadows and young couples go a-maying. May 1st is a day when fertility and fecundity are celebrated with gaiety, song, and dance. On May Day the ancient Celts celebrated the Pagan festival of Beltane around a roaring fire on the tops of hills and mountains. Coincidentally, the Romans celebrated the first of May Day in honor of the goddess Flora. According to the Chambers’ Book of Days, 

“Nations taking more or less their origin from Rome have settled upon the 1st of May as the special time for fetes of the same kind. With ancients and moderns alike it was one instinctive rush to the fields, to revel in the bloom which was newly presented on the meadows and the trees; the more city-pent the population, the more eager apparently the desire to get among the flowers, and bring away samples of them: – Ibid

In medieval times the day was dedicated to Robin Hood, but by 1645, Oliver Cromwell had banned May Day celebrations because of their association with pagan rituals. The celebrations were brought back after the Restoration, when King Charles II was placed on the British throne.

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,

  Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her

  The Flowry May, who from her green lap throws

The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.

  Hail bounteous May that dost inspire 

  Mirth and youth, and warm desire,

  Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,

  Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.

Thus we salute thee with our early Song,

And welcom thee, and wish thee long.

– Song on May Morning, John Milton 

The following quote from Brand’s & Ellis’s Observations on Popular Antiquities (1813) takes you back to the Elizabethan era: 

“IT  was  anciently  the  custom  for  all  ranks  of  people  to  go  out  a  Maying  early on  the  first  of  Maya.  Bourne  tells  us  that,  in  his  time,  in  the  villages  in  the North  of  England,  the  juvenile  part  of  both  sexes  were  wont  to  rise  a  little  after midnight  on  the  morning  of  that  day,  and  walk  to  some  neighbouring  wood, accompanied  with  musick  and  the  blowing  of  horns,  where  they  broke  down branches  from  the  trees  and  adorned  them  with  nosegays  and  crowns  of  flowers. This  done,  they  returned  homewards  with  their  booty,  about  the  time  of  sun- rise, and  made  their  doors  and  windows  triumph  in  the  flowery  spoil. – (Brand & Ellis, Observations on Popular Antiquities…Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions, 1813, pp. 179-180.) 

Back then people festooned doors and windows with flower garlands. Every village, town, and district affixed a pole in a public space as “high as a ship’s vessel”.  A tree of an appropriate height was selected and brought in with much ceremony. It was then erected in a spot where it stood from year to year. Many of these poles stood much higher than the church steeple in a village or town.


Maypole, Chambers’ Book of Days, May 1st

The MayPole

“But  their cheefest  Jewell  they  bring  from  thence”  [the  woods]  ”  is  their  Male  poole, whiche  they  bring  home  with  greatc  veneration,  as  thus.  They  have  twentie  or fourtie  yoke  of  oxen,  every  oxe  havyng  a  sweete  nosegaie  of  flowers  tyed  on the  tippe  of  his  homes,  and  these  oxen  drawe  home  this  Maie  poole,  (this stinckyng  Idoll  rather,)  which  is  covered  all  over  with  flowers  and  hearbes, bounde  rounde  aboute  with  stringes,  from  the  top  to  the  bottomo,  and  some- tyme  painted  with  variable  colours,  with  twoo  or  three  hundred  men,  women, and  children  followyng  it,  with  greate  devotion.” – Brand & Ellis, p. 193

The MayPole was festooned with wreaths of flowers; revelers danced in rings around it for nearly the entire day. Then, as mentioned before, during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth those revelries ceased:

“By  an  ordinance  of the  [Long]  Parliament,  in  April  1644,  all  May  Poles  were  taken  down,  and removed  by  the  constables,  churchwardens,  &c.  After  the  restoration,  they were  permitted  to  be  erected  again’.” – Brand & Ellis, p. 195

Milk maids dance on May Day

Milk maids dance on May Day, Chambers’ Book of Days

The Book of Chambers writes: “The Puritans—those most respectable people, always so unpleasantly shown as the enemies of mirth and good humour — caused May-poles to be uprooted, and a stop put to all their jollities; but after the Restoration they were everywhere re-erected, and the appropriate rites re-commenced.”

Just sixteen years later, “maypoles were raised across the land as a gleeful marker of the end of Puritan prohibitions.”  (John Chu, National Trust). Rites included chimney sweeps hustling for coins in the streets and milkmaids dancing for pennies as they balanced silverware on their heads. 

The Green Man in Jane Austen’s Day

Green Man 800px-Domreiter,_Blattmaske

Green Man, Wikimedia Commons, File: Domreiter, Blattmaske.jpg

Since early Christian days, many of Britain’s cathedrals and churches – those in countries that were populated by the ancient Romans – featured sculpted images of the “green man.” These pagan images were carved for Christian churches before the Restoration, for superstitions pertaining to nature and tree worship still influenced the middle ages. The Green Man symbolized life, or the death and rebirth that heralded spring and the promise of a plentiful harvest in the coming months. The early churches might have tied these beliefs to the resurrection, which made sense in terms of the Christian faith.

During Austen’s day, the tradition of Jack-in-the-Green became a common sight. 

May Day, or, Jack-in-the-Green

We’ll banish Care, and all his Train

Nor thought of Sadness round us play

Fly distant hence, corroding pain

For happiness shall crown this Day.

(20th June 1795) (May Day, All Things Georgian)

The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser first mentioned the Jack-in-the-Green  in 1775, (the year of Jane Austen’s birth). The character  was a man who concealed his body with green foliage. This “walking tree” paraded in processions, along with a King and Queen (or a Lord and lady), and jesters, clowns, chimney sweeps, and musicians. The Jack-in-the-Green tradition largely died out in the Victorian era. 


© The Trustees of the British Museum “A street scene. An elderly man and woman, wearing tawdry finery, dance opposite each other, to the music of a wooden-legged fiddler (left). Between and behind them a grinning face looks from a pyramid of greenery, supported on the feet of the Jack in the Green. A couple of chimney-sweeps dance in the middle distance on the extreme right, and in the background (left) two other climbing-boys on a tiny scale dance together. Beneath the title: ‘We’ll banish Care, and all his Train Nor thought of Sadness round us play Fly distant hence, corroding pain For happiness shall crown this Day.’ 20 June 1795 Etching”


Happy 1st day of May, all! Looking at my yard and its fresh greenery, spring flowers, and the activity of nesting birds, and the pregnant deer wandering through my yard, I realize why May Day traditions and celebrations of fertility continue in this day and age.

I leave you with a wonderful video of Morris dancers, whose traditions stem back to the custom of dancing around the maypole. These dances evolved into rival performances among neighboring villages and eventually evolved into Morris dancing. You can find many regional examples online. This video shows only one such interpretation.

Sources:  Find more information about May Day in the links below.

Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days, a website based on The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, W & R Chambers (1869). Searched link: May 1st. Scroll down to May Day. May 1st

Brand, John & Ellis, Henry,  Observations on Popular Antiquities Chiefly illustrating the origin of our vulgar customs, Ceremonies and Superstitions: Arranged and revl, with additions. (Published in 1813)  Internet Archive Digital Book

May Day: the tradition of the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps, All Things Georgian, Joanne Major, 2017. https://georgianera.wordpress.com/tag/may-day/

Satirical Print, The British Museum, https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1866-1114-640

The Green Man, Ellen Castelow, & May Day Celebrations, Ben Johnson Historic UK 

Green Man, Wikipedia. A foliate head in the shape of an acanthus leaf: a corbel supporting the Bamberg Horseman, Bamberg cathedral, Germany, early 13th century. Public Domain File: Domreiter, Blattmaske.jpg  Green man sculptures seen in Iraq, Istanbul, North Wales, etc.

The MayPole Tradition in Ireland, The Fading Years blog, April 26, 2017

The history of May Day, a spring celebration, John Chu, National Trust, UK.

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