What Happened to Whitsun?

I don’t usually do two posts back to back but this popped into my head and I need to do it while it’s still the right time of year.

When I was a child the biggest Church festivals were Christmas, Easter, Harvest Festival, and Whitsuntide. Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Harvest also tied in with school holidays. Whereas Christian churches still celebrate all these and some others throughout the year, the general population here in Britain seems to have forgotten all about Whitsun. Whitsuntide was the name given to the whole occasion with Whit Sunday and Whit Monday being the two main days. Here in Britain now, the weekend is always the last weekend in May, the Monday is an official holiday and the week always coincides with a half term school holiday. However, the weekend, the bank holiday Monday and the associated school holiday are now always known as Spring Bank Holiday.

So I asked myself how and when this happened. Younger people now, unless they are churchgoers, don’t even know the word Whitsun. I asked a few friends about this and we all had the same memories of Whitsun. It was huge! On Whitsunday you wore your very best clothes. If you had a new summer dress and new shoes, to replace last summer’s things you’d grown out of, they were worn for the first time to church on Whit Sunday morning. We girls sometimes wore little straw hats, ribbons in their hair or white gloves. The boys all had smart trousers, shirts and ties. It was wonderful and felt like the start of summer.

Presbyterian Whitsun Walk   Image result for whitsun 1950s

Whitsun walks in Wales 1950.

Image result for whitsun 1950s  Image result for whitsun 1950s

Sheffield 1952.                                                   Leyland, Lancashire 1950s.

There were often parties and parades that weekend (I lived in a tiny village so our celebration was mainly the church service) and in many towns in the north there were Whit Walks. Those of my friends who grew up in the North of England remember the Whit Walks with great fondness.

So when did Whit weekend and Whit Week become plain old Spring Bank Holiday – or Spring Bank as it’s generally referred to? According to Wikipedia, Whit Monday was officially renamed Spring Bank Holiday in 1972. Also according to Wikipedia Whit celebrations still take place in a few parts of the country.

‘In the North 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.’

This is a photograph of Manchester Whit Walk in 2010. Source Wikipedia.

So finally, for those who are not familiar with Whitsun, what exactly is it? Once more, I turned to Google for the answer

‘The name is believed to be a contraction of “White Sunday”.  Whit Sunday is the seventh Sunday after Easter, when Christians celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit to the first followers of Christ.’

So there it is. A high point on the calendar at one time for everyone, in and out of church, Whitsuntide is now known simply as Spring Bank Holiday.

 

 

21 thoughts on “What Happened to Whitsun?

  1. Now that was a totally new area of information for me. Sitting here in the usa state of Oregon….not certain..i had even READ about it. Of course..our totally outdoor lives..center..about the natural farms/woods/mountains..and so..whatever ideas of a ‘good book’..of any type of religion..were..greatly wanting..by public standards. The finn great grands..left the Lutheran church..ages ago. My mother sent me along with the neighb ors children..around age 7..to a Methodist childrens group..maybe twice. I asked, later we found out..uncomfortable questions’. Sigh..yes..that would have been me. At this point in time..i can well imagine..the new name..’bank holiday’..being rather sad nod..to what was.. a genuine..celebration of spring. Speaking from..far across the pond..perhaps with the education of younger folks, and speaking to those..who might see themselves..as ‘very green earth loving types’..the name, the spring celebrations..could be..revived? Worth a try..and good luck. I must say..bank holiday..does not grant..the seasons newness..and beauty..the honor it deserves. ina

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First time I will ever about Whit Sunday. Such a rich history, colorful and I like that it has this communal feeling about it. And it’s nice to know that the coming of the Holy Spirit was celebrated in that way. Thank you so much for sharing this history. Really enjoyed reading through your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks very much! I’ve been so surprised to learn from readers of this blog in other countries that Whitsuntide as a church celebration is unknown outside Britain. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about it and I have learned from all the responses!

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      • I loved this blog which I found on google . I had been explaining to a friends child about the religious meaning of Whitsun . My Grandaughter had been asked to make some white food to take to school to celebrate whitsun , They javelin a special day each year with maypole dancing and so on.
        I remember whitsuntide from childhood exactly as it’s been describes with walks , new clothes , church devices and fairs and food .
        One of my friends seems to have completely forgotten the name we all
        knew in the 50’s and 60’s and now only knows it as Pentecost , which I also know it as .
        I think it also has AngloSaxon connections with the word ‘wit ‘meaning ‘understanding ‘ the Christian Pentecost
        ( receiving the Holy Spirit )also leading to understanding .

        Liked by 2 people

      • I loved this blog which I found on google . I had been explaining to a friends child about the religious meaning of Whitsun . My Grandaughter had been asked to make some white food to take to school to celebrate whitsun , They have a special day each year with maypole dancing and so on.
        I remember whitsuntide from childhood exactly as it’s been described with walks , new clothes , church services and fairs and special food . I grew up in a rural village in Staffordshire but the tradition was still strong when I lived in Leeds in Yorkshire as a student there .
        One of my friends seems to have completely forgotten the name we all
        knew in the 50’s and 60’s and now only knows it as Pentecost , which I also know it as .
        I think it also has AngloSaxon connections with the word ‘wit ‘meaning ‘understanding ‘ the Christian Pentecost
        ( receiving the Holy Spirit )also leading to understanding .

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am currently filling out a book which will provide my grandchildren with an insight into my life as a child (in Wales).
    My mind was taken back to Whitsunday when pondering an answer to a question on Memorial Day, which is an American Holiday in May.
    Whitsunday morning started with making sure the fire in the boiler was going strong so that there was enough hot water for everyone to have a bath and be clean for our Sunday Best clothes.
    In early afternoon we went to our church and with other children assembled into a parade unit which would become a section in the main parade. we would then walk to the village centre and join with other churches units for a walk around the village streets which were lined by parents.
    Upon completion of the walk, each churches unit returned to its church for thw Whitsunday afternoon church service.
    Such is my memory of Whitsunday 70 years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I remember Whitsun as a major holiday with school parades and a Mass celebrated in the grounds of Cardiff Castle.
    I moved to Canada in the mid sixties and I was immediately struck by the fact that, in Canada, Whitsun was not recognized and was, apparently, unknown.
    The change of name in UK I can only put down to increasing secularism and that’s unfortunate, given Britain’s Christian heritage.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I grew up in Valley Stream, NY, in the 1950’s-60’s. All the churches in town participated in an annual Pentecost parade, in which there were decorated floats for the younger children. Mothers decorated strollers, and older children walked and carried church flags and banners. Afterwards we went back to the church and had ice cream. We called it the June Walk, and some other towns celebrated it as well and called it the Anniversary Day Parade.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, just like the Whit Walks remembered here. Now we just refer to Spring Bank Holiday, mainly in connection with schools closing for a half term break. No floats, parades or processions. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Fascinating… The disappearing Christian holiday / traditional festival …

    Thirteen years after Churchill and the UK Conservatives returned to power,
    in October 1964, Harry Wilson’s so called Labour Party won a narrow victory of four seats in the UK general election…

    A trial was to be had…

    From 1965 to 1970 Whitsun Bank Holiday weekend was to be scrapped
    Spring Bank Holiday, it’s replacement, to be fixed on the last Monday of May.
    So convenient…

    To make it more difficult to work out what has happened, I have discovered that most calender sites (ie pages with the annual diary twelve months calender) have rewritten history now labelling Whit Monday / Whitsun Bank Holiday Monday as Spring Bank Holiday for pre 1965 as if Whitsun never existed…

    Ahh but that can’t do that with my Grandad’s old diaries… No mention of Spring Bank Holiday.
    In 1978 our ‘Arry Wilson introduced the May Day Bank Holiday… I think I’m beginning to understand…

    Just to see how big the Whitsuntide celebration was in dear old Blighty, have a look the 1960 ‘Whitsun Weekend’ Pathe News Reel… Manchester UK, it looks like thousands lining the streets…
    Here’s the link:

    https://www.britishpathe.com/video/super-whitsun

    There’s so many to be Googled…
    1959 is a fine view as well:

    https://www.britishpathe.com/video/record-whitsun

    It’s interesting then that the final Whitsun Bank Holiday Weekend in 1964 was more or less destroyed by rampaging Mods & Rockers… It is kind of reminiscent of the nonsensical violence we’ve seen all over the world these last twelve months, apparently in support of an armed robber…

    Must be just coinicidence.

    Thoroughly fascinating, thank you very much for this fine page!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an interesting, thought-provoking response. It hadn’t occurred to me that the change was in any way political in origin. I had thought it was a gradual erosion of a tradition over many years. A few of my old diaries from my childhood have survived and I’ve just looked through them. Sure enough, the high days and holidays printed in them show Whitsun through the fifties and Spring Bank holiday from the mid sixties. Although, even after that, I was recording that school broke up for the Whitsun holidays. Every year I wrote that I attended the mayoral service and procession on Whit Sunday. I thoroughly enjoyed the two newsreels. It was like being in the cinema in the 50s. Thank you for a very interesting read!

      Like

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