Pentecost 2016: What is Whitsun and why is it celebrated?

The first Pentecost marked the beginning of the Christian church as an official, meaningful movement

David Hughes
Sunday 15 May 2016 11:49 BST
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Pope Francis celebrates a Pentecost mass in St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican
Pope Francis celebrates a Pentecost mass in St.Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

While it may not be as widely known or celebrated as Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is one of the most significant dates of the Christian calendar.

The festival, which this year falls on 15 May, commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples following the death of Jesus Christ.

The biblical account describes how the apostles, who were gathered to celebrate the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot, began to talk in foreign tongues, leading the massed onlookers to assume that they were drunk.

However, Saint Peter explained that the disciples were inspired by the Holy Spirit and preached the first Christian sermon, prompting the conversion and baptism of 3,000 people.

This first Pentecost marked the beginning of the Christian church as an official, meaningful movement, so the celebration is widely considered the birthday of Christianity.

Why is the festival called Pentecost? When is it celebrated?

The festival’s name comes from the Greek word ‘Pentekostos’, meaning ’50’.

It is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter, marking 50 days since the final Sabbath of Passover, and so falls on a different date each year.

Why is it also known as Whitsun?

While ‘Pentecost’ is more widely used in the UK, traditionally the church has referred to the celebration as ‘Whitsun’, or ‘Whit Sunday’.

It is believed that the name comes from Pentecost being a day for baptisms, when participants would dress in white.

‘Whitsun’ is also thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘wit’, meaning ‘understanding’, to celebrate the disciples being filled with the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

How is it celebrated?

Between 1871 and 1978 the festival was marked by a UK bank holiday on Whit Monday, the day after Whit Sunday, before it was replaced by the current Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday of May. However, Pentecost Monday is stilll a public holiday in many European countries, such as France, Germany and Belgium.

Within Christianity the day is still popular for baptisms, while some churches hold Whit Walks. Folk traditions such as cheese rolling and morris dancing also have long-standing associations with Whit Sunday.

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