Jack in the Green is a character commonly associated with May events in England. Usually dressed head to foot in green boughs and leaves and sometimes known as Jack o’ the Green, the character is something of a contradiction. Far from being a rural sprite, the character originated as part of the May events and celebrations put on by urban chimney sweeps, and was often accompanied through the city streets by a musician, various other characters and a begging bowl. In that sense, Jack in the Green is more closely related to the Whittlesea Straw Bear than the Green Man, with whom he is often misassociated.
Apparently not. While they certainly share certain resemblances, and both are often mistaken for pagan symbols of fertility, the historian most commonly associated with Jack in the Green, Roy Judge, could trace the lineage of this verdant character no further back than the tail end of the 18th century.
The connection between the Green Man and Jack in the Green was first suggested in 1939 by Lady Raglan, a member of the Folklore Society, who felt the character looked a little like the Green Man carvings often found in churches. In fact, according to the historian Ronald Hutton, it was Raglan who first coined the term, ‘The Green Man’, which she took, “from a popular pub sign displaying a forester”. She made the assumption that these bush-like characters were pre-Christian symbols of fertility, but could show no evidence for it.
In his research, Roy Judge found that Jack in the Green originated from a milkmaid’s dance that began in the mid-17th century. The milkmaids would dance with flowers crowning their milk pails and heads, a performance that proved quite lucrative. The decorations evolved and, by the 1690s, incorporated a pyramid construction for their heads, made of wood, flowers, ribbons and silver. The practice was picked up by chimney sweeps, largely out of work by May due to the decreased need for fires, and the tradition once again progressed. By the 1830s, the pyramid had become a frame decorated with foliage, completely disguising the person inside the costume.
Originally accompanied by ‘climbing boys’ (young chimney sweeps) who would make use of their shovels as percussive instruments, a Lord and a Lady (the latter, often a man in drag) and a fool, the Jack in the Green tradition reached its height by the mid-1800s, when it was commonplace at May events across London, the Thames Valley and sometimes further afield. It eventually went into decline when the use of ‘climbing boys’ in the chimney sweeping profession was outlawed, and Jack of the Green lost his most lucrative dancing partner.
It most certainly can. The most obvious place to stage an encounter would be at Hastings Traditional Jack in the Green Festival, which takes place annually around the beginning of May. In 2023, it will take place between April 28th and May 1st.
Not when he’s Jackie. Jack of the Green has evolved with the times, and recent depictions of the character have shown it to be more gender-fluid. Boss Morris dance with Jackie in the Green, while Jill in the Green is a recent addition to the festivities at the Bradford-on-Avon Green Man Festival.
The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996). Main image: Libby Bove’s Spirit of Summer with Evercreech Jack in the Green – photo credit, Mark Pickthall.