Sunday, 23 May 2010



Today is what used to be called Whitsunday and tomorrow would have been Whit Monday, if they hadn't nicked that holiday, back in 1970, and traded it in for what is now the Bank Holiday Monday at the end of the month.

So, what is Whitsun? Well, its the English name for the Christian festival otherwise called Pentecost and held on the seventh Sunday after Easter to mark the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles with a rushing wind and tongues of living fire.

The first mention of the word 'Whitsun' in English is, apparently, to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1067, where it appears as ‘hwitan sunnan daeg’. The derivation of the word has been much debated, but is generally thought that 'whit' is a contraction of 'white' (rather than anything to do with 'wit') and refers to a popularity for holding adult baptisms on that day which traditionally required those being admitted into the church to wear white.

It became a popular convention for folk to wear new clothes on Whit Sunday and the religious observation of the day was coupled with all kinds of secular merrymaking beginning in the Middle Ages with morris dancing (involving representations of our recent blog-friends Robin of Sherwood, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck), outings, picnics, fětes and fairs to which were later added a range of sporting events on the Monday.

One curious superstition was that any child born on Whit Sunday was doomed either to kill or be killed. Such a fate could, however, be averted by holding a mock funeral for the child -- or, alternatively, by squashing an insect in the child's hand.

Not then a good day on which to be born and most certainly not a good day on which to be a bug!

A good day, however, for this blog to clock up the following interesting number of hits!!

Image: Detail of stained glass window in the former St Mary's-at-Lambeth, London, now home of The Garden Museum by Brian Sibley © 2010, uploaded via my flickr Photostream.


scb said...

Thanks for the etymological explanation of Whitsunday, Brian. I'd always assumed it was derived from "White Sunday", but it was good to get the full scoop. (We, being boring, simply call it Pentecost.)

Monday's a holiday here in Canada -- Victoria Day. Why we still celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria, and not the birthday of the current monarch, is beyond me. I'm sure it has more to do with people wanting a long weekend in May to do gardening and open up their beach cottages, than any deep appreciation of Queen Victoria. (Cynical? Who, me?)

Boll Weavil said...

There's a rather nice old English folk song called 'Dancing at Whitsun' that was around when I was a lad. Fortunately no connection to Robin Hood though (a film I haven't seen yet)

Suzanne said...

I never did get this English thing of moving religious feasts about! Here in Belgium, we have 10 "holy days", which actually include 1st & 11th November and 21st July (national feast day). And nothing or nobody gets to change them! And if ever one of them falls on a Saturday or a Sunday then you jolly well get to recuperate that day on another occasion! You'll tell me that this is because Belgium is a Catholic country; maybe, but I don't think people here any more Catholic than elsewhere... the churches are more & more deserted!
Oh, and apparently Napoleon was responsible for limiting the amount of Holy days in the calendar. Before his time, people would take days off for Saint this and saint that. You try running a war when your captains and generals can't agree on whether to celebrate Saint Dagobert or Saint Hugues! So the little guy was a little bit useful sometimes!

driin: the noise made by the very old bell in a very old church tower, calling people to Whitsunday mass

Brian Sibley said...

SCB - According to Wikipedia:

"Victoria Day (in French: Fête de la Reine), colloquially known as May Long Weekend, May Two-four, May Long, or May Run, is a federal Canadian statutory holiday celebrated on the last Monday before or on 24 May, in honour of both Queen Victoria's birthday and the current reigning Canadian sovereign's official birthday, and is also considered an informal mark of the beginning of the summer season.

"It has been observed since before Canada was formed, originally falling on the sovereign's actual birthday, and continues to be celebrated in various fashions across the country on the fixed date of the first Monday on or before 24 May. Royal Salutes, or 21-gun salutes, are fired in each provincial capital and in the national capital at noon on Victoria Day to mark the Sovereign's Birthday. However, since the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the same day was unofficially known in the province as Fête de Dollard until 2003, when provincial legislation officially named the same date as Victoria Day the National Patriots' Day."

You can read the full saga here.

BOLL WEAVIL - I like the sound of it. Can you still do it? I hope you'll dance it for your Missis tomorrow on her birthday. Please send her our salutations...

By the way, I didn't mean that there was any Morris dancing in the new Robin Hood film - that would have been ghastly beyond belief! But Robin & Co are, as I'm sure you know, inextricably linked (along with 'Tom the Piper') to the Morris tradition.

SUZANNE - We didn't move Whitsunday, just the following Monday holiday. Pentecost, like Easter, has always been a feast that falls on different dates each year and when the May Bank holiday was introduced (on the Monday nearest to 1st May) it meant that, in some years, the Whit Monday holiday could fall just a couple of weeks later.

So, the secular holiday was moved to the last Monday in the month, thus rendering the demise of the term 'Whit-weekend'.

Needless to say, being a public holiday, when it does come it will probably be a wet weekend! :(

Rob Cox said...

And congratulations on so many (deserved) hits on your blog, Brian. Nearly a quarter of a million - that sounds more! So - who wants to be a millionaire?

Brian Sibley said...

ROB Cox - Thanks, Professor. So, is that what "nearly a quarter of a million" looks like when it's written down? I see similar figures on my bank statements fairly regularly, but they tend to have a minus sign in front! ;)

Phil said...

I would like to contribute the almost useless information that in Germany Whitsun is known as Pfingsten. I have no idea why, but I like the word.

Totally off-topic:
I read yesterday that Martin Gardner had died at the age of 94. He did wonderful books on recreational maths, debunking pseudoscience, and the wonderful ANNOTATED ALICE.

Brian Sibley said...

PHIL - Thanks for 'Pfingsten': a terrific word!

On the subject of Martin Gardner: I was much saddened to read of his death - he was a hero of mine and I devoured his books on puzzles, paradoxes and magic. His Annotated Alice and Annotated Snark were a major influence on my youthful explorations of the worlds of Lewis Carroll. I had always hoped that I might one day get the opportunity to interview him, but - at 94 - I left it too late!