In Rochester, England, real life chimney sweeps have about as much fun as they do in Mary Poppins! Part of the traditions with the chimney sweep profession include a celebration that takes place once a year and goes on for 3 days straight.
Hundreds of years ago when chimneys were cleaned by young boys, the profession had one day off each year! This was on May 1st. To celebrate, the boys ran through the streets singing and dancing with excitement. Today, the celebration continues in a very similar fashion. The modern day festival which will mark its 32nd year in 2012 reenacts this tradition with more and more extravagance every year. Think Mardi Gras, Chimney Sweep Style.
In May of each year, over the national bank holiday, a huge festival for chimney sweeps in Rochester, England called the Rochester Sweeps Festival takes place. This year the festival will be held from Saturday, May 5th through Monday, May 7th, 2012. The festival has many attractions ranging from traditional folk music, elaborate dancing, parades, group performances and other festive entertainment.
One of the most important parts of this holiday tradition is the awakening of the Jack-in-the-Green during the festival. The Jack-in-the-Green is a 7 foot tall leafy man that starts the parade celebrations each year alongside traditional Morris dancers and the chimney sweeps. The concept came about from the elaborate costumes people used to wear during the May festival to celebrate the coming of spring. People used to dress up by layering strands of flowers and leaves all over themselves. Some people got so into the leafy costumes that they began to take on the form of a tree rather than a person. This look later became recognized as the Jack-in-the-Green at every May Festival. Now the Jack-in-the-Green has a prominent role in the Rochester Sweeps Festival.
A few songs have been written about the Jack-in-the-Green, including a track by the same name by Magpie Lane that is written in the traditional style of folk music and projects the spirit of the festivities.
The Morris dancers that take part in the parades at the festivals are traditional English folk dancers. Each group of these dancers consist of about 6-10 people dressed up in various costumes. The costumes vary greatly depending on where each group is from. Some Morris dancers wear tattered clothing and paint their faces black, while others dress up in lively colors with detailed belts. Traditional Morris dancing is performed on specific holidays, such as May Day, Whitsunday, and Christmas.
After all of the excitement during the day with the parades and dances, the festivities continue at night in the many local pubs where local beer flows and local bands play all night for the lively audience. This is a weekend filled with tradition and new things to see so it brings in a lot of tourism to the various businesses throughout town. Somehow we thought that these sweeps might end the day in the pub!
Even though the date carries much of the tradition of the festival, and the current level of tourism is already very high, this year there is controversy surrounding the May Day holiday. The English Parliament is thinking about moving the festivities to October or April to extend the tourism season and ultimately make the holiday more profitable for participating businesses. The proposal came from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) tourism who believes that the change in date will have a dramatic increase in tourism to the area. Already 3,000 people have signed a petition against this proposal, and a decision has not yet been reached.
This festival is a great way to celebrate the tradition and history of the chimney sweep profession. Tourists literally come from all over the world to be part of the excitement of the festival, celebrate the coming of Spring and of course, for the good luck kisses from all of the local sweeps and Morris men.
Who knows maybe one of these years Nayaug Chimney Sweeps will throw our own festival!
Check out these Traditional Dances and Music from the Rochester Sweeps Festival
The 2011 Sweeps Festival and Jack-In-The-Green Awakening Ceremony.
English folk dance, Morris Dancing at the Sweeps Festival in Rochester on High Street.
The Witchmen Border Morris Dancers dancing ‘Rochester Thistle’ at the Rochester Sweeps Festival 2010.