We know well the spirit of summer –
How rituals must be observed –
And so with a tender brutality
We solemnly slay the colourless;
We shed our wintercares.
And this is how the May unfurls –
Tendrils, at first tentative, recall how to entwine,
Entrance, enrapture, gently bind
As, purpling, a new year blooms
Across dawn’s sunstarved skin.
The first of May takes on an excitement akin to Christmas as the years go by, fulfilling a great longing for ritual – for enacting metaphors so potently that for one fleeting moment, they are truth. For taking on ancient practices, and tending our own fledgling traditions. For drawing loved ones near and feeling momentarily central to the great, dark, dizzying expanse of our universe. And, of course, for drinking and dancing and crying with laughter.
This is how we celebrate the first of May in Hastings, and will for the rest of our lives.
We wake, bedraggled from the night before (which is becoming as much of a celebration as the day itself) and stand bleary-eyed in the kitchen as the scents of roasting coffee and sizzling bacon work their magic. We feast around Sam’s parents’ long wooden dining table to carefully-selected songs, then in a flurry of paint and ribbon we assume our once-a-year roles. Antlers, ivy, drinking horns, steel and the surreal.
We walk to the mist-wreathed hilltop where the tree-people meet. The journey comes in stages – first glances of surprise and mocking calls from passersby, soon giving way to tipped hats and salutations as a tide of green-clad revellers descends upon winding old-town roads. We recognise familiar faces – the great stag, the gentleman ram, the skeleton goat, the crow. Creatures who do not belong to this realm on any day but this one.
And then, in the distance, the sound of drums. A stirring within. It begins.
The crowds part and children stand on tip-toes to see the lord and leader of our ragged band – in some ways an ancient sacrifice, in others an elaborate Victorian hat, but in all ways Jack. The springtime totem rustles past, both comical and unsettling in equal measure, bobbing in time to the drums of his bacchant bogie court, leaving music and madness in his wake.
The madness of Jack takes many forms – black-painted morris dancers, children bedecked in garlands, stately shamans, a maiden gaunt and towering with black and tattered wings. And always the drums. The stirring within. It begins.
This is the stuff of your friendliest nightmares. The ones you wake from, pulse racing, yet long to return to. And as Jack reaches his cliff-top throne and his followers disperse across the festival grounds, the dream plays out in pageantry. Cheerful dancers take to the stage, picnics are spread on the glistening grass, foaming tankards are shared between brothers. This is the essence of the celebration – the light and dark sides of English folk lore played out in delightful discord. This is the place where blood on snow meets garden gnomes.
Hours give way to music and laughter – or maybe days. You know how the old stories go. Then the music fades and gently, barely a whisper above the crowd’s tumult, we hear the drums. A stirring within. It begins.
Ears prick, eyes turn toward the throne where Jack surveys his court. The bogies have gathered, have lifted their drums, have begun the final clamour that will play out destruction and creation in an everlasting cycle. And as the people rise to their feet, the drums deepen, grow louder, almost imperceptibly. We are drawn to the throne. It is the drums, as soft and as subtle as the sea fog that billows below, beating a message to our basest instincts.
The drums gather pace for minutes, maybe hours – you know how the old stories go. By the end, the crowd are clapping and stamping, bobbing to the rhythm, occasionally crying out in wild anticipation. And then, when the frenzy is seconds from brimming over, they stop.
A single shaft of sunlight peers through the grey and is gone again. Jack rises from his throne.
The crowd parts. The bogies strike up a new rhythm. The king of May passes through the crowd in a sussurus of green, and ascends the stage. He is honoured with a final performance from his loyal morris dancers before he is ritually slain – a tragic martyr to the season he loves best – and the spirit of summer is released.
The crowd surges forward, grasping at the leaves showering down from the stage, caught up in bloodless bloodlust. They will carry a part of Jack with them until Autumn, when they will walk in a torchlit procession to the ocean, and cast the leaves on a flaming pyre.
And there will be drums. A stirring within. Another cycle will begin.