Whitsun (also Whitsunday or Whit Sunday) is the name used especially in Britain and Ireland, and throughout the world among Catholic, Anglicans and Methodists, for the Christian festival of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples (Acts 2). In England it took on some characteristics of Beltane, which originated from the pagan celebration of Summer's Day, the beginning of the summer half-year, in Europe. Whitsuntide, the week following Whitsunday, was one of three vacation weeks for the medieval villein; on most manors he was free from service on the lord's demesne this week, which marked a pause in the agricultural year. Whit Monday, the day after Whitsun, remained a holiday in Britain until 1971 when, with effect from 1972, the movable holiday was replaced with the fixed Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May. Whit was the occasion for varied forms of celebration.
Manchester 2010 Whit Walks
|Date||Seventh sunday after Easter|
|2018 date||20 May|
|2019 date||9 June|
|2020 date||31 May|
|2021 date||23 May|
In the North West of England, church and chapel parades called whit walks still take place at this time (sometimes on Whit Friday, the Friday after Whitsun). Typically, the parades include brass bands and choirs; girls attending are dressed in white. Traditionally, Whit fairs (sometimes called Whitsun ales) took place. Other customs, such as Morris dancing, were associated with Whitsun, although in most cases they have been transferred to the Spring bank holiday. Whaddon, Cambridgeshire has its own Whitsun tradition of singing a unique song around the village before and on Whit Sunday itself.
The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "the Holy Ghost, whom thou didst send on Whit-sunday" in the Old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England white vestments, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon John Mirk (c. 1382–1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Goode men and woymen, as ȝe knowen wele all, þys day ys called Whitsonday, for bycause þat þe Holy Gost as þys day broȝt wyt and wysdome ynto all Cristes dyscyples.
Thus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples.
As the first holiday of the summer, Whitsun was one of the favourite times in the traditional calendar, and Whit Sunday, or the following week, was a time for celebration. This took the form of fêtes, fairs, pageants and parades, with Whitsun ales and Morris dancing in the south of England and Whit walks, Club Days and wakes in the north. A poster advertising the Whitsun festivities at Sunbury, Middlesex in 1778 listed the following attractions:
On Whit Monday, in the morning, will be a punting match...The first boat that comes in to receive a guinea...In the afternoon a gold-laced hat, worth 30s. to be cudgell'd for...On Whit Tuesday, in the morning, a fine Holland smock and ribbons, to be run for by girls and young women. And in the afternoon six pairs of buckskin gloves to be wrestled for.
In Manchester during the 17th century the nearby Kersal Moor Whit races were the great event of the year when large numbers of people turned the area into a giant fairground for several days. With the coming of industrialisation it became convenient to close down whole towns for a week in order to clean and maintain the machinery in the mills and factories. The week of closure, or wakes week, was often held at Whitsuntide. A report in John Harlan and T.T. Wilkinson's Lancashire Folk lore (1882) reads:
It is customary for the cotton mills etc., to close for Whitsuntide week to give the hands a holiday; the men going to the races etc. and the women visiting Manchester on Whit-Saturday, thronging the markets, the Royal Exchange and the Infirmary Esplanade, and other public places: And gazing in at the shop windows, whence this day is usually called 'Gaping Sunday'.
Whit Monday was officially recognised as a bank holiday in the UK in 1871, but lost this status in 1972 when the fixed Spring Bank Holiday was created.
- 1485: Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur has the Knights of the Round Table witness a divine vision of the Holy Grail on a Whitsunday, prompting their quest to find its true location.
- 1607: Thomas Middleton refers to "the Whitsun holy-days" in Michaelmas Term (IV.i.73).
- 1611: In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale Perdita imagines that she plays "as I have seen them do / In Whitsun pastorals" (IV.iv.133-34).
- 1617: James I's Declaration of Sports encouraged "Whitsun ales", among other things, as soon as church was over on a Sunday.
- 1633: George Herbert wrote a poem called "Whitsunday", first published in The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations.
- 1759-67: Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman contains several allusions to Whitsuntide.
- 1785: Samuel Johnson records in his Prayers and Meditations that "Between Easter and Whitsun-tide [1773 . . . he] attempted to learn the Low Dutch language." James Boswell reproduces the remark in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791).
- 1787: The Whitsun Donative was an anonymous satirical pamphlet inspired by Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
- 1844: Whitsun is central to religious life in Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf's novel Money and Spirit.
- 1849: Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley contains an episode set against a Whitsun-tide procession in which Anglican parishioners are confronted by dissenters.
- 1853: Charles Dickens sets a scene in the life of King Edward I on "one Friday in Whitsun week" in A Child's History of England.
- 1853: Christina Rossetti wrote a poem called "Whitsun Eve", published posthumously in 1896.
- 1875: Charles Dickens's posthumous collection The Uncommercial Traveller includes (in Chapter 21) a reflection on "one day in the Whitsun week last past".
- 1896: H.G. Wells refers to Whitsun in "The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham", later included in The Country of the Blind and Other Stories.
- 1897: In H.G. Wells's The Invisible Man, important events take place around Whit Monday and subsequent days.
- 1916: James Joyce's novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contains reference (in Chapter 2) to a Whitsuntide play at Stephen Dedalus's school, Belvedere College.
- 1922: James Joyce's novel Ulysses contains four references to Whit Monday. Leopold Bloom is stung by a bee on Whitmonday, 23 May 1904.
- 1932: Agatha Christie's short story "Ingots of Gold" references Whitsuntide and Whit Monday as clues in solving the crime.
- 1936: In Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley detective novel Dead Men's Morris (Michael Joseph, 1936, reprinted 1986) the story of the murders of an Oxfordshire solicitor and his rival, a landowner, begins on Christmas Eve, and reaches its climax with a Morris dance performance on Whit-Monday.
- 1938: In Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, Hale is murdered on Whitsun, kicking off events in the novel.
- 1950: The autobiographical novel A Voice Through A Cloud by Denton Welch concerns the author's near-fatal bike accident and its aftermath, which occurred on a Whitsun holiday.
- 1961: Sylvia Plath wrote a poem called "Whitsun", published posthumously in 1971.
- 1964: The Whitsun Weddings is a poem and the title of a collection by Philip Larkin.
- 1965: "Whitsunday in Kirchstetten" is a poem by W. H. Auden, from his collection About the House.
- 1973: Thomas Pynchon refers to Whitsun in his novel Gravity's Rainbow (section 2, 20).
- 2010: In Washington: A Life, a 2010 biography by Ron Chernow, George Washington is said to have included a drinking allowance in an employment contract with one of his gardeners, allowing "two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk four days and four nights" (p. 135).
- 2011: Several episodes in author Jeff Wheeler's Muirwood Trilogy revolve around Whitsunday and its significance and impact on Muirwood's inhabitants.
- The Second World War film Went the Day Well? (1942) depicts the fictional takeover of an English village by Nazi soldiers over Whitsun weekend.
- Selected Christian Observances, 2019, U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department
- Anon. "High Court Sittings: Law Terms". The Courts Service. Retrieved 24 May 2014.
- The Book of Worship for Church and Home: With Orders of Worship, Services for the Administration of the Sacraments and Other Aids to Worship According to the Usages of the Methodist Church. Methodist Publishing House. 1964. p. 126. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
- Jones, Prudence; Pennick, Nigel (20 February 1997). A history of pagan Europe. Routledge. p. 124. ISBN 0-415-15804-4. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- The others being Yuletide, the week following Christmas, and Easter Week, the week following Easter that ended at Hocktide (Homans 1991).
- George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, 2nd ed. 1991:369.
- Banking and Financial Dealings Act, 1971, Schedule 1, para 1.
- "Whit Friday: Whit Walks". saddleworth.org.
- Liz Woods. "'Feasts and Festivals'". feastsandfestivals.blogspot.com.
- Nigel Strudwick. "Reviving the Whaddon Whitsun Song". whaddon.org.
- Skeat, Walter William (1898) . An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (3rd ed.). Clarendon Press. p. 708.
the Holy Ghost, whom thou didst send on Whit-sunday; O. Eng. Homilies, i. 209, 1. 16.
- Both noted in Walter William Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. "Whitsun".
- Campion, William Magan (1870). The Prayer book interleaved with historical illustrations and explanatory notes arranged parallel to the text. 5. p. 125. Retrieved 2017-06-05.
- Theodore Erbe (editor) (1905). Mirk's Festial: a Collection of Homilies, Kegan Paul et al., for the Early English Text Society, p.159 accessed 15 December 2014 at Internet Archive.
- Anon (29 May 1869). "Whitsuntide". The Manchester Times. Manchester, UK.
- Anon. "Whitsuntide". The Free Online Dictionary. Farlex Inc. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- Roud, Steve (31 March 2008). The English Year (eBook). ePenguin. ISBN 978-0-14-191927-0.
- Dobkin, Monty (1999). Broughton and Cheetham Hill in Regency and Victorian times. Neil Richardson. ISBN 1-85216-131-0.