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Chris Bethell for BuzzFeed News

This Pagan Festival Is Probably The Most British Thing You Can Think Of

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What do you think of when you think of Britain? Perhaps it's clichés – rich tea biscuits, mushy peas, Prince Charles' mug on a mug. Maybe you see shouty football fans, struggling beach resorts, and English Heritage's failed attempt to make jousting an Olympic sport.

Or maybe, like many, your thoughts drift to the current political turmoil – issues like Brexit and the upcoming general election that are driving wedges between families, friends, and communities. Is there anything in the UK that can help unify its warring factions?

Enter Jack in the Green, a traditional May Day celebration held annually in Hastings. Maybe Britain's traditional festivals are the places where its people's differences are transcended and communities are forged. Could some morris dancers who call themselves Bogies and the slaying of an autonomous bush named Jack really bring people together? BuzzFeed News went down to find out more.

What do you think it means to be British?

Aron: Erm, I'm a bit sceptical about being patriotic to be honest with you. I think to be British should be about community, love, spirit, acceptance, forgiveness – all of those things. It should be multicultural and everything should be celebrated. To acknowledge and be acknowledged instead of shunning people.

Is that what you hope to find in an event like this?

A: It's here in an event like this! There's all kinds of faces up and down the parade. It's incredible. It's great to be a part of it.

Do you think traditions like this are important to British culture?

A: Definitely, although it's pagan. It's the origin of the backbench of Christianity, almost. So yeah.

What brings you here today?

Amy Lambert: The celebration of spring.

Are you from Hastings?

AL: No, I'm from America – Massachusetts.

Do you think its important for traditions like this to be celebrated?

AL: Definitely. You see so many people together, so many people in the spirit of the event.

You haven't grown up with this tradition – have you found it accessible and involving for other cultures?

AL: Oh yeah. The sunshine is doing an even better job, though.

Who are you today, John?

John: I'm a wolf. Although some people think I'm a bear. No significance whatsoever to the Jack in the Green.

Do you live in Hastings?

J: Yeah.

Has there been any kind of divide in Hastings over the upcoming election?

J: Well, only in that there's a lot of people in Hastings that would like to see [local MP and Tory home secretary] Amber Rudd out. But the trouble is that we're kind of tied up with Rye – so Hastings and Rye, so Rye is more generally Conservative. So we don't have much chance of getting her out. It would be nice though, obviously.

Do you think traditions like this help people to put aside their political differences?

J: I don't know. Possibly. No one asks anyone about anything like that here, so I guess maybe.

Do you live in Hastings?

Jane Lofton: I am at the moment, yes.

Have you noticed any divide between people following the Brexit vote?

JL: Not really, no.

How important do you feel festivals like this are to British culture?

JL: They're fundamental and I think they're very much on the rise. People are claiming back the streets. This is giving people power again.

What is it about this festival that makes it British?

JL: Its roots. Its roots are pagan, which goes back thousands of years. It's ancient English folklore that people are really discovering.

What are you hoping to get out of being here today?

JL: That same thing about reclaiming the streets. Declaring the streets back for the people that live here. I think it's a reaction of being over-controlled.

What does it mean to be a morris dancer in 2017?

Richy: Blimey, I don't know. It's just my life. I mean look at this place, it's fantastic. And we've just danced up that hill – y'know, at the age of 12, that's not too bad.

Why is morris dancing so important to you?

R: Well, it's absolutely key to British culture. But sadly it's a little bit threatened these days. It's important for people to keep it going and particularly for young people to get involved. We've got to get young people into it.

Do you think it's getting harder to get young people to identify with being British, to want to carry on these traditions since Brexit?

R: It hasn't made any difference to us at all. If anything it's been quite the opposite.

What does it feel like to be involved in a tradition like this?

Natasha: It feels really wonderful. Such a beautiful atmosphere here. There's a very good sense of community and a lot of camaraderie. Every year everyone comes together – you'll see old friends and you'll all be like, "Oh, hello! Hello!" You just want to "hurrah!" because you're so happy.

Do you feel like traditions like this capture what it means to be British?

N: Oh, absolutely. I would definitely say so. These sorts of things capture the best aspects of what it is to be British. This is why they don't ever seem to die out. They do draw communities together to form even larger communities.

Do you live in Hastings?

N: I did – I'm actually in London now but I used to live here.

When you lived here, was there ever a noticeable divide between people over their politics?

N: I'm not really sure, to be honest. I think that because everyone here is so laidback and understanding of each other.

Do you feel that events like this help people to move past their differences?

N: Definitely! It doesn't matter where in Britain you live. If you're lucky enough to live somewhere where these events are still happening then you are very lucky indeed, and I think that those are probably the communities that are thriving in a particular way compared to towns that don't have events like this.

How important do you think it is for traditions like this to keep on going?

Terry: They keep communities together. Otherwise everyone would be sitting indoors watching the telly. It keeps old tunes going – folk music, yeah.

How long have you been coming to Jack in the Green?

T: Only about 12 years.

Do you feel like there has been much divide between people over issues like Brexit here in Hastings?

T: No, I don't. I think it's because people here are totally isolated from the rest of the country. I work in London and I see what issues like immigration have done with housing, work, and that. This is just an isolated place really.

Hastings voted to leave Europe. Do you think there's any resentment between the people who voted Leave and the people who voted Remain?

T: I think you'll find that all over the country. The ones who voted to stay have all got the hump really. They're very sad people, a lot of them, very vindictive.

If people from other cultures wanted to join in with a tradition like this, would it be accessible for them to do so?

T: Oh yeah, there's a bunch already. There's Dutch morris dancers, French morris dancers here. If you want to mix in in this country then yes. The trouble is that many people want their own little country within a country and that doesn't work. It's too small.

I noticed that you're quite young compared to most people here.

Amelia: I've been doing this since I was about that tall [holds hand at shoulder], so I guess since I was about 9 or so. When I was younger my mum dressed up her Harley-Davidson and put me on the back. We drove through, following the parade. The organisers said they didn't want us to do that again, so we joined the parade from then on.

How many years have you been involved?

A: Probably about 11 years roughly.

Joining in with something like this, how British does it make you feel?

A: I don't think it makes me feel British, it makes me feel more pagan. I'm very pagan, I'm all into the moon and following nature. I love doing that, so it brings me back to my pagan roots. For some, it may make them feel British because this is a very British thing to do. But for me it brings me back to my roots and the age of Stonehenge and so on and so forth.

Do you live in Hastings?

A: Yeah, born in St Leonards so not very far away.

Have you noticed a divide between people here since Brexit?

A: From what I've noticed on Facebook, there has been. I've noticed some friends saying that they don't want Tories on their Facebook, "I don't want this, I don't want that." I'm open to everything. I mean, I voted to stay and it frustrated me that we didn't. But then again, I'm more up for democracy than staying in the EU.

Do you think think traditions like this are important to transcend differences and bring the community together?

A: I really think that they are. At events like this you don't know people's political opinions. You don't know whether someone wants to leave the EU or vote for Theresa May. You don't know and it doesn't matter. Everyone is just having fun.

Who are you today?

Guy: I'm FunGuy! I'm a green man!

How British do you feel today?

G: Oh! Erm, not particularly British because most people don't look like this. But yes, this is an eccentric British sort of day and I do love it.

Do you think that British traditions and patriotism go hand in hand?

G: I think they can do. I think that they're probably different things but sometimes they meet and merge. But not always, they can be quite separate as well.

Do you think traditions like this are important in bringing people together?

G: Definitely! I'm not from Hastings, I'm from Southampton. I'm from King John's Morris – we come along to here, we've been here a few years now. Likewise, many people come from all over the place for this. So you can see just from around you, people are coming together. Everyone on the streets is wearing green, they have green noses, hats, and everything. Yes, of course it is!

Do events like this help people to put aside their differences over issues like Brexit and the election?

G: I haven't thought about Brexit all day. So I guess so!

Who are you today?

Justin: I'm with a few other people dressed like this, my friend designed it. We're the future of lighting – lanterns from space.

What do you think it means to be British?

J: It's a very tricky question, I don't really have an answer to it. It defines your legal nationality and your residency status but there's no such thing, I believe, as a British identity or culture.

Are you from Hastings?

J: No, I'm from London.

How important do you think these kind of British traditions have?

J: Well, to describe something as British is quite nationalist. I don't really think Britain has that cohesion on a societal level. I think events like this are really important at the local level.

Why are you here today?

J: There is something beautiful about embracing tradition, but for me it's really important for it not to be described as British because that makes it exclusive. If we want to create more community cohesion – to include more cultures and be more embracing, then things like this need to be set up an a way that makes them accessible and available for all. As someone who is from Britain, an English person, I do want to engage with a certain sense of heritage and tradition. There were Bollywood dancers on the stage a minute ago, and I think that's a perfect example of embracing a multicultural status that I hope we all identify with now anyway.

Who are you today?

Clare Colcutt-James: I'm one of the lovely ladies.

Has there been any divide or resentment between people in hastings since the Brexit vote?

CCJ: There was a little bit to begin with and then people decided that we all need to move on. This is because our camaraderie and friendship is more important.

How do you think Hastings will vote in the upcoming election?

CCJ: I have no idea. Absolutely no idea. No idea at all, but erm... No, I really have no idea. It could go either way.

How important do you think traditions like this are for transcending those differences and bringing people together?

CCJ: The traditions we have here – Jack in the Green and the bonfire, and all the other things that we have going on – actually completely and utterly wipe everything else out. We all love this, we absolutely love it.

Do you feel like it's a British tradition or more of a cultural tradition?

CCJ: I think it's probably British. And a bit mad. And a bit wonderful.

What does it mean for you to be British?

CCJ: I'm very proud that I'm British. I used to live in Bermuda and I was asked by a Bermudian to marry him. I was so close to saying yes, but I couldn't leave England. I love England. And I love this stupidity that we do. In actual fact, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would want houses all over the world but England would always be my base.

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