I am very lucky to be living in a part of the UK where celebrating Beltane is still very much alive and well – not just among Pagans, but by all members of the local community.
The Sweeps Festival is an annual event in my home town of Rochester, a historic city located in Kent, south-east England. It’s been held since 1980 as a revival of the May Day dances performed by chimney sweeps, and it’s perhaps Rochester’s most beloved festival of all. A three-day event taking place across the May Day Bank Holiday weekend, the Sweeps Festival is a celebration of music, dance and art – and it is deeply connected with Pagan traditions.
At dawn on May 1st, a ceremony will take place at Bluebell Hill, a local landmark with Pagan links of its own due to the presence of prehistoric tombs (the “Medway Megaliths”) and the many legends of ghosts and supernatural encounters surrounding the area. The ceremony is to awaken Jack-In-The-Green: The personification of nature, who in modern times is frequently conflated with the Green Man. Jack-In-The-Green is represented by a person covered entirely in greenery and he is awakened by the singing and dancing of Morris dancers and people dressed as chimney sweeps as the May sun rises.
Jack-In-The-Green will then walk through the streets of Rochester accompanied by chimney sweeps and Morris dancing teams from all over the UK. You’ll see Maypole dancing as well. Although the sweeps, Morris dancers and folk bands are the focal point of the occasion, the festival has expanded greatly over the years so there’s now craft fairs all over the main high street and a big carnival on the grounds of Rochester Castle. And there are many, many beer tents, as well as stalls selling pewter tankards; Sweeps veterans often bring their own tankard which they keep replenished with ale throughout the festival.
Sweeps and Pagans – Friendship and Friction
With such prominent Beltane roots, the Sweeps Festival draws a large Pagan crowd and you’ll find plenty of people proudly donned in ritual attire (cloaks, big pentagrams, masks, you name it). Additionally, many of the Morris dancers are practising Pagans themselves – and even the ones who aren’t tend to be very Pagan-friendly and knowledgeable of the Pagan connections with Morris Dancing. Local businesses take full advantage of this, stocking up on Pagan jewellery and ritual items – especially items related to the Green Man, who has become one of the Sweeps Festival’s most identifiable symbols.
Although the Sweeps Festival is Pagan at heart, there is some controversy surrounding overtly Pagan elements being included as part of official proceedings. In 2014, for the first time, a Pagan blessing had been scheduled for the launch of the festival and was even included in the official programme. However, it was cancelled at the last minute by the organisers. No-one is quite sure why, but rumour is that the event organisers suddenly decided it was inappropriate. Naturally this caused considerable upset in the local Pagan community because so many Pagans support the festival, and because the festival is clearly linked to Beltane. To add insult to injury, services at Rochester Cathedral were all listed in the official Programme – so one can hardly say that the decision was made in order to keep the festival secular. The following year, members of the Pagan community held their own unofficial rituals at Sweeps, with retailers in the Rochester Castle grounds assembling to bless the grounds, and witches joining in the parade and purging the streets of bad energy by sweeping with their brooms.
Are the Sweeps Festival organisers worried that the official incorporation of Pagan rituals is going to offend or alienate non-Pagan attendants? In the context of this festival, which already has so much Pagan imagery, these fears seem ungrounded. What’s more, I think the Pagan community are delighted that the festival is so inclusive, and we wouldn’t dream of turning it into a festival “by Pagans, for Pagans.” I think the only thing local Pagans want is to feel welcomed; rescinding our invitation to conduct a small blessing at the beginning was hardly a welcoming gesture.
Fortunately, things might be looking up this year. The Widdershin Witches, who were sweeping away the negative energy with their brooms last year, have been featured on the Medway Council website, so perhaps the Council is beginning to feel a little more comfortable with including more overt Pagan ritual in the official billing for Sweeps.