May Day was celebrated by the Romans and the Pagans who knew it as Beltain. It falls midway between the winter and summer solstices and was a time of change and celebration before the hardships of the agricultural year. People would feel at one with nature and would be praying for a bountiful harvest ahead. The day would often start with church bells being rung. Spring Flowers would be picked and made into elaborate garlands, which children would tout from door to door where they sang and danced in the hope of earning a few pennies.
In Sussex therefore May Day was known as Garland Day. An old Sussex rhyme was “The First of May is Garland Day – the Second of May is Washing Day” Along the Sussex coast floral garlands would also be used to decorate fishing boats as the day often coincided with the start of the mackerel season. Traditionally nets would be folded away having been repaired for the start of the new season. In some Sussex towns, for instance at Brighton, May Day was known as ‘Bending In” day which related to the folding up of the nets. The owner of the fishing boat would be expected to treat his fishermen and their families with beer and cheese (with ginger-beer for the children). Often a Punch and Judy would be set up on the beach for entertainment.
May Day was also a special day for milkmaids and chimney-sweeps who would take to the streets to celebrate. Sweeps would be dressed with hundreds of colourful rags and pieces of paper attached to their clothes. In 1847 the Reverend Robert Dennis of East Blatchington, Seaford recorded in his diary: “1st May: Sweeps are dancing at my door with shovels and bells, fantastically dressed up in gilt paper caps, ribbons etc. A line of about 100 children with nosegays on the end of sticks have sallied forth from Rottingdean”. As the local vicar he was presumably also expected to judge the may-garlands. In 1850 he wrote: “1st May: Children came garlanding. Jane Mace and Phoebe Pelham had the best garland” On 1st May 1892 children from the Newhaven area went from house to house with their garlands before assembling at Miss Catt’s house in Denton where they were each given a penny, a cake and a book.
The Reverend Dennis also mentioned Jack-in-the-Green. This was a character (again usually played by a local chimney sweep) who would be completely covered in fresh spring greenery. He would represent the start of the farming year and possibly is associated with the mysterious ‘green men’ carved on many a medieval church (and locally onto the Star Inn at Alfriston)
Not all clergymen were happy about Garland Day. The 1st May 1893 was a school day but the mother of 7 year old James Bond of Crowborough had given him permission to go ‘garlanding’ instead. The schoolmaster, the Reverend Ruck Keene had sent a note to Mrs Bond asking for young James to attend school and he was sent to school with a note of apology. He arrived at 11.45 and took his seat but the teacher was so incensed, he beat the child on the bottom and legs causing lacerations, later causing his legs to turn black and blue. A summons was issued for ‘excessive beating’ and having heard the evidence (the boy said he had given the money made from garlanding to his mother) the reverend was found guilty and fined.
On Garland Day young horses would be shod for the first time and traditionally by way of payment the farmer would treat the blacksmith with a quart of beer called ‘colt’s beer’ There is a record of this happening at East Hoathly as recently as 1909.
All the various celebrations would cumulate on the village green where there would traditionally be a may-pole, dancing and the choosing of the May Queen (and no doubt more beer and cheese!)
Garland Day was still celebrated in Lewes in 1909 and in Uckfield in 1910 but writing in the Sussex Express in 1953, the Sussex Rouser bemoaned the passing of these old traditions asking why the charming events of his youth such as Garland Day, May-poles and Jack-in-the Green were no longer celebrated in Lewes. Rouser would be pleased that the Jack-in-the Green Parade was revived in Hastings in 1983 and is now a regular event in the Sussex calendar.
Sources: I have used several sources of information for this item including this splendid little booklet about local folk traditions..