May Day: Ritual of Renewal


Christopher James Stone


Gerry Atkinson

(All photos by Gerry Atkinson unless otherwise stated)

Cap’n Sam on the May Day Parade: from Meridian TV

For the second year in succession, Cap’n Sam, the Whitstable Giant, joined the May Day procession as it danced, rattled, drummed and shimmied its way through the main drag, from Whitstable Library to the Castle grounds.

Cap’n Sam is wholly owned by Whitstable Carnival, so this represented the Carnival Association giving its full support to another of the community groups in the town.

The two parades both take place at keys points in the seasonal cycle, May Day – known as Beltane (“bright fire”) in the Celtic tongue – being one of the four traditional fire festivals in the Celtic ritual year, the others being Samhain (1 November) Imbolc (1 February) and Lughnasahd (1 August). Whitstable Carnival takes place on the first Saturday in August, which makes it a celebration of Lughnasahd, also known as Lammas in its Anglo-Saxon form: the summer twin of May Day, being a full quarter of a year later.

Dixie Lee & Jack in the Green

Dixie Lee on Meridian TV : Tuesday 2 May 2023 at 5:51pm

Whitstable Carnival has a history going back to Victorian times, the first carnival having taken place in 1897. The May Day parade is more recent. It was started in the 1970s by Dixie Lee. She’d been involved in running a folk club in the Duke of Cumberland at the time. The May Day parade grew out of that. The first year it was only held in the Castle grounds. The procession didn’t take place till the second year. This was after Wallace Harvey, a local historian, pointed to a picture in the Douglas West collection of historic photographs (currently housed in Whitstable Museum) dating from around 1912, which showed a Jack in the Green in Whitstable. It was out of this that the idea of reviving the tradition grew.

Jack in the Green in Whitstable, from the Douglas West Collection, c 1912

Jack in the Green is an English folk custom associated with the celebration of May Day. It involves a conical framework decorated with foliage being worn by a person as part of a procession. There are clear implications of some sort of a fertility symbol in this, associated with the Green Man decoration in churches. It can be understood as the personification of Summer, whose blessings are about to rain down upon the grateful population after the rigours of Winter. The bountiful season is upon us. Time to take to the streets and celebrate our good fortune.

Jack in the Green 2023: from Meridian TV

Dixie said: “When we found Jack in the Green in Whitstable we were over the moon because it was a really, really good folk tradition that we could follow.” The first revival of the Jack in the Green procession took place in 1976 and has been happening (barring Covid-related lockdowns) ever since.

You can see Dixie in an interview on Meridian TV, here:

Dixie said: “I’m 87 years old and retiring. My daughter, Kerry Fletcher, is taking over. We had a wonderful time. Getting on TV was a real thrill for me. We thank everybody who joined in.”


(Click on images to enlarge)

The procession was broken into three parts. It started at the library with dancing displays by the Dead Horse Morris men and the Broomdashers ladies team from Whitstable, as well as the Bower Street Morris group from Margate. After this we processed along the High Street to the Horsebridge, where there was more dancing, and a Mummers’ play. From there we continued along Harbour Street to Dead Man’s Corner at the harbour where we were greeted by Samba Pelo Mar. Here a hybrid dance took place: Morris steps to a Brazilian rhythm. Traditionalists would be appalled. The rest of us were happily entertained. Finally the two Morris troupes, Cap’n Sam, and our followers, made our way to the Castle where the Whitstable, Herne Bay, Canterbury Lions Club welcomed us to take part in the rest of the days activities.

The link up between the Morris dancers and the samba band looks like the start of a tradition. Traditions become traditions by being repeated. If it isn’t traditional now, it will be some day. Same goes for Cap’n Sam’s presence. That’s not traditional either, but we’re more than happy to make it one.

The point about folk traditions is that they are created by us, the folk. They are ever evolving, ever changing. There is no such thing as a fixed tradition. Tradition is a dynamic process of change, from one year to the next, from one generation to the next.


(Click on images to enlarge)

You can see me in the photograph above (next to Sam, on the left, with a top hat and a beak) dressed as Jack Crow. He’s my alter ego. He’s the persona I adopt when I’m engaged in ritual work. Which is what this procession up the High Street is: it’s a ritual to welcome the spirit of Summer in the form of Jack in the Green. That’s what were doing when we revive these ancient traditions: we’re linking back to our ancestors, feeling the current of their humanity in our own lives.

The mistake that historic ethnographers have made is to believe that our ancestors undertook ritual acts as a form of superstition, in the belief that they were encouraging nature to do her work. That’s not why they did it at all. They knew full well what nature would do and that she would do it whatever they got up to. The point about ritual is that it connects us human beings to the process. It links us to nature. It is our way of expressing, on a non-verbal level, our identification with these natural cycles of renewal and decay. As nature renews herself, so we renew ourselves.

That’s what May Day is all about. It is about connecting ourselves to nature, to the world, and to each other.


Dead Horse Morris:

Bower Street Morris:

Samba Pelo Mar:

Whitstable Carnival:

More on May Day by CJ Stone:

Shirley Collins and The Albion Country Band – Just As The Tide Was A ‘Flowing:

One morning in the month of May
When all the birds were singing
I saw a lovely lady stray
Across the fields at break of day
And softly sang a roundelay
The tide flows in, the tide flows out
Twice every day returning

A sailor's wife at home must bide
She halted, heavily she sighed
“He parted from me, me a bride
Just as the tide was a-flowing”
The tide flows in, the tide flows out
Twice every day returning

About Gerry Atkinson:

Training as a photojournalist, I started recording  political protests in London in the 1990’s. I spent 18 months volunteering with CWERC, an NGO in the Philippines, recording the lives of indigenous women for an audio-visual ‘Weaving our own Dreams’. I moved on to New Zealand for 4 years working for newspapers. On returning to London I organised a collaborative project with people with mental health problems to produce ‘Through the Lens’ documentary photography exhibition.

My MA research in 2010 resulted in a book ‘Shades of Other Lives’, a series of windows at night, developed in reference to Labour Party comments that “We are all middle class now”. In 2011-2012, I spent 10 months in Greece, Cape Town and New Zealand working on documentary projects. Recent community projects are ‘Our Work of Art 2018-2019’. I have an NUJ Photojournalist Press Card and am currently discussing new ideas and collaborations.

I studied at Leicester University, the London College of Communication and the University for the Creative Arts.

I have extensive solo and group exhibition experience including the British Museums landmark exhibition “Rice and Life in the Philippines”.  My work has been published in newspapers, books and magazines and is held in private collections.

Photo by Glen London

To see more of Gerry’s work, please go to:

About CJ Stone

CJ Stone is an author, columnist and feature writer. He has written seven books, and columns and articles for many newspapers and magazines.

Read more of CJ Stone’s work here, here and here.

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