Whitsun (also Whitsunday or Whit Sunday) is the name used in Britain and Ireland, and throughout the world among Catholic, Anglicans and Methodists, for the Christian festival of Pentecost. It is 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, it was replaced with the Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May. Whit was the occasion for varied forms of celebration.
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 Englishhomilies, 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 ?e knowen wele all, þys day ys called Whitsonday, for bycause þat þe Holy Gost as þys day bro?t 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.
The following day is Whit Monday, a name coined to supersede the form Monday in Whitsun-week used by John Wycliffe and others. The week following Whit Sunday is known as "Whitsuntide" or "Whit week".
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.
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.