Chance reprise for the ghost of Whitsun past

Andrew Brown
Saturday 25 May 1996 23:02

Today a ghost holiday is being celebrated: the feast of Whitsun, which until 30 years ago was one of the great holidays of the year, as it had been for centuries. A 16th-century farmer from the Fen village of Willingham left to his neighbours in his will "a flitch of bacon to make merry with all at the feast of Whitsuntide"; and even after the decay of religion it was, until 1965, a name that everyone would recognise. Now the word has almost vanished, driven out of existence by an ecumenical alliance of Roman Catholics, the Church of England, and the Department of Employment.

Until 1965, the Spring Bank Holiday had been, like Easter, a moveable feast: it was celebrated on Whit Sunday, seven weeks after Easter Sunday. But in that year, the Labour government decided to detach the secular bank holiday from its inconveniently mobile and unpredictable religious anchor and fix it on the last weekend in May. This change was made permanent by a Conservative government in 1971.

This year, Easter happened to fall seven weeks before the Spring Bank Holiday and so the religious feast of Whitsun is temporarily reunited with the long weekend and the start of the school half-term.

Whitsun was the common English name for the feast of Pentecost, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, 50 days after the resurrection. The name comes from the common practice of baptism on that day, in white robes, which were worn for a week afterwards. "Whit" is a shortening of "white".

The Roman Catholic Church used the term Whitsuntide, even though it referred to Whit Sunday as Pentecost, a name derived from the Greek for "fiftieth". The days of the week following, when special prayers were said, were called Whit Monday, Whit Tuesday, and so forth, as they were in the Church of England. However, a liturgical reform in 1969 meant that Whitsuntide disappeared in that church.

At almost the same time, the Church of England authorised the Alternative Service Book, and there too the name of the feast changed and became Pentecost.

The new name chimes with pentecostalism, the most significant development of Christianity this century: the practice of speaking in tongues and even of ecstatic prophecy has now spread to all the mainstream churches.

The modern name also reaches back to the earliest days of Christianity, when the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost had been kept as a time of special celebration: the first council of Nicaea, in 325, decreed that the congregation should not kneel when praying in church then, and the whole period was known as "The Great Sunday".

So a fine old word has gone, and this year, as you celebrate the Spring Bank Holiday or Pentecost, to taste, spare a thought for Philip Larkin, rendered even grumpier beyond the grave because his finest book of poetry now has a title whose meaning has almost disappeared: The Whitsun Weddings.

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