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Sweep Traditions in England Include Celebrations

Sweeps in Europe Have Way Too Much Fun!
by Dave Lamb –
Chimney sweeps sing, dance and have fun outside of Disney movies like Mary Poppins. Some modern day sweeps get to do these things in real life too! Every year in May over the national bank holiday in England, there is a huge festival for chimney sweeps held in Rochester appropriately called the Rochester Sweeps Festival. Next 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. Tourists actually come from all over the world to witness this unique event.

The traditions of chimney sweeps run deep in England as does the comradery among those in the trade. This modern day festival that will mark its 32nd year in 2012 is not a recent development. In fact, this celebration was going on hundreds of years ago when the chimney sweep boys would have one day off a year on the 1st of May. To celebrate their day off, the boys would gather and dance and sing while walking through the streets. The celebration continues in a similar fashion today.

Another important part of the tradition is the awakening of the Jack-in-the-Green at dawn during the festival. The Jack-in-the-Green concept comes about from the elaborate costumes people used to wear during the May festival to celebrate the coming of spring. People would deck themselves out with strands of flowers and leaves to the point that the costumes would cover the man entirely causing him to look like an 8 foot high tree. This resulted in the establishment of the Jack-in-the-Green at every May Festival, including the Rochester Sweeps Festival. The leafy fellow begins by leading a procession of the traditional Morris dancers and chimney sweeps through the streets to begin 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 demonstrates the spirit of the festivities.

At these May Day celebrations, the traditional English folk dancing called Morris dancing is a common sight. These dances consist of about 6-10 dancers dressed up in various costumes depending on where they are from. Some Morris dancers wear tattered clothing and paint their faces black while others dress up in lively colors with detailed belts. Morris dancing is traditionally performed on specific holidays, such as May Day, Whitsunday, and Christmas.

Besides the daytime dancing and singing, the festivities continue at night in the many local pubs where bands play and everyone else drinks in celebration. This is a weekend filled with excitement that brings in a lot of tourism for the town of Rochester. One would guess that pubs played a part in this sweeps celebration!

Despite the tradition in the date and huge draw for tourism, this year there is controversy surrounding the May Day holiday. Parliament is thinking about moving the festivities to an alternative date. The holiday could be moved to October or April to extend the tourism season. The proposal came from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) tourism policy because the department believes they can extend the profitability of this festival by changing the time of year it occurs in. A decision has not yet been reached.

This festival is a great way to celebrate the tradition and history of the chimney sweep profession. Both sweeps and observers from many countries all join in to be part of the excitement of the festival, celebrate the coming of Spring and get a good luck kiss from all of the local sweeps and Morris men. Maybe one day we will send a contingent from Northeastern Chimney, you never know. Sounds like fun!

Witness Sweep Traditions in these Recent Videos from Rochester Sweeps Festival

The 2011 Sweeps Festival and Jack-In-The-Green Awakening Ceremony
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English folk dance, Morris Dancing at the Sweeps Festival in Rochester on High Street.
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The Witchmen Border Morris Dancers dancing ‘Rochester Thistle’ at the Rochester Sweeps Festival 2010.
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