Whitsun

By Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Whitsun Bride

Seventh Sunday after Easter

Pentecost is the date in the Christian calendar which commemorates the Holy Spirit descending upon Christ’s disciples following his death and resurrection, and occurs on the seventh Sunday after Easter, at the end of Eastertide. In Britain it is known as Whitsun, or Whit Sunday. During Saxon times it was known as Pentecoste, however following the Norman conquest of Britain in the early 11th Century the date became known as Whit as a conflation of white, for holy, and ‘wit’, which meant ‘understanding’ and could be related to the Biblical story of the disciples receiving the gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit, allowing them to speak in and understand other languages.

Whitsun was the first day of Whitsuntide, which in medieval times was one of three weeks of holiday during the year. As such, it was an incredibly important date for the working classes, as those in service to a lord or landowner would be free for a week to relax from work, spend time with their families, drink, and be merry. On Whitsun, and during the following week, various celebratory activities would take place, including Morris dancing, processions and walks, fêtes, Club Days, wake weeks, and sports events like boat races and wrestling. The town or surrounding land would become something of a fairground which would be opened on Whitsun.

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.

John Mirk, Mirk’s Festial: A Collection of Homilies

Drinking Whitsun ales was customary. On Whitsun a man and a woman would be chosen to act as Lord and Lady of the Ale, and would dress in regal attire. Various other roles would be assigned, including courtiers and a fool. The Lord and Lady would lead a parade from the church through the town, with musicians in tow, and the congregation would follow dressed in their “Sunday Best”—their finest attire reserved for special Sundays such as this. The procession would end at the “Lord’s Hall,” which was typically a barn or other large building. A dance would be held in the hall, with musicians and performers, and the Lord and Lady of the Ale would act as guests of honour. Common decadences were milk and cream, as well as summer berries and cheesecakes.

Pentecost is still noted in church calendars, though Whitsun is less commonly acknowledged. In various parts of the country some traditions remain, and there has been a slight revival of old British folklore customs which includes Whitsun in recent years. It is the start of the summer holiday, and should be noted as such.

Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Whitsun Bride
Pieter Breughel the Younger, The Whitsun Bride, Public Domain
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