Local churches gather for a Pentecost service in Stalybridge. Whitsun is still celebrated in small corners of England (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

May 29, 2020   6 mins

This coming Sunday is Whitsun, the feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s disciples, fifty days after Easter. Wait, is that right? Wasn’t Easter Sunday more than seven weeks ago? If you have any real sense of what ‘seven weeks’ actually means in this strange season, when days and weeks are all alike and the usual landmarks of time have gone astray, you’re doing better than me.

Anyway, it is Whitsun. From the Middle Ages until the first half of the 20th century, Whitsun and the week that followed was the chief summer holiday of the year in Britain. It was a time for all kinds of communal merry-making, varying over the centuries but consistent in spirit: the season for feasts and fairs, dancing and drinking, school and church processions, and generally having a good time.

Though its roots lie in the Christian feast of Pentecost, most of the festivities historically associated with Whitsun bear little direct relation to that event. More significant was the fact that the feast always falls in May or June — a promising time of year for outdoor events with at least the hope of good weather.

In the early medieval church, including Anglo-Saxon England, Pentecost was a common date for baptisms and other kinds of public ceremonies, such as coronations, which must have meant it soon became an occasion for more general celebration. The English name for the feast is first recorded in the eleventh century, and until the past few decades was much more widely used among English-speakers than Pentecost. Most likely this name came from ‘White Sunday’, referring to the garments worn by the newly baptised, though folk etymology has sometimes claimed a link to the ‘wit’ or wisdom which descended on the disciples.

Many records from the later Middle Ages testify to the holiday spirit of Whitsun, especially after the development of ‘Whitsun ales’ — feasts which combined communal entertainment, dancing, plays and games with the useful function of fundraising for the parish church. Writers of medieval romance liked to set Arthurian stories at Whitsun, telling how King Arthur had a custom that he would not dine on that day until he had heard a great marvel, and so, Thomas Malory says, “all manner of strange adventures came before Arthur at that feast, before all other feasts”.

But it was a festival for commoners as well as kings. What’s notable about later Whitsun festivities, from the 19th and early 20th century, is how popular the holiday was across all classes. It was a time for church and village feasts, sports, and fairs, and by the end of the 19th century it was a Bank Holiday – statutory merriment.

Particularly appealing are accounts of Whitsun in industrial northern England, where mills and factories were closed and their workers had a well-earned, much-treasured holiday. Churches and Sunday schools would come together for Whit Walks in huge crowds — in their thousands in cities like Manchester — to walk in procession with singing and music.

Even well into the twentieth century, Whitsuntide was still a shared cultural landmark. As the occasion for mass holiday-making it crops up in various literary contexts, from the sinister opening scenes of Brighton Rock, set among crowds of Londoners pouring down to the seaside for Whit Monday, to Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, in which the poet observes a succession of working-class families who have all taken advantage of the holiday to get married.

And then, in 1971, it was decided that the Spring Bank Holiday should be a fixed rather than a moveable feast, and would always fall on the last Monday in May. The holiday lost its centuries-long link to Whitsun; as a result, even the name is now increasingly forgotten.

Without getting too nostalgic about a pastoral idyll of feasts on the village green, it’s hard not to be wistful right now for something of this — for any kind of shared, communal festivity. Happy holiday crowds — crowds of any description — are out of the question at the moment, and probably will be for a long time to come. Many people don’t feel much like celebrating, and for those who do, all forms of outdoor leisure are fraught with tension.

Anyone who’s attempted a socially-distanced street party in recent weeks or, now it’s permitted, gone outside to sit in the sun has been liable to find themselves the target of a Twitter shaming (one form of communal activity which even a lockdown can’t stop). How long will it be before we can look at a crowd of people again without an undercurrent of fear?

But it doesn’t feel natural, either, to go on living indefinitely in unmarked time, without holiday or festival. Normal cycles of work and leisure have been disrupted by this crisis: some people are working harder than ever, under impossible stress, while others have found themselves unemployed or on uneasy furlough, with time on their hands that can’t be enjoyed as carefree holiday.

Months of monotony, with nothing to look forward to and nothing to distinguish one day from another, is an experience which fundamentally conflicts with most of the ways societies throughout history have found to give structure to the passage of time. Most religions recognise the importance of marking time: celebrating rites of passage, appointing seasons for feasting and fasting, getting together at set times to celebrate, pray, or mourn. As religious holidays die away, secular society invents its own alternatives.

Over the past few months, we’ve been stripped of all that. Those keeping Easter, Passover, Ramadan or other commemorations have had to do so at home and online, for many a very imperfect substitute, and non-believers have lost their rituals too: no birthday parties, no graduations, not even the weekly trip to a favourite coffee shop. We’ve been deprived of almost every conceivable form of public, shared experience — perhaps most painfully of all, with restrictions on funerals, the rituals of grieving. These are anchors, and without them we drift.

It’s hard to assess the cumulative effect of all those missed rituals, all those cancelled joys, and the voids where memories should have been. The impact of their loss is intangible compared to the more obvious effects of this crisis, but perhaps we should acknowledge that this, too, brings a kind of grief — for the lonely funeral, the milestone birthdays that won’t come again, or just the ever-lurking recollection of what we would have been doing now, if

It’s not surprising that part of the reaction has been the creation of brand-new rituals, in an attempt to share at least brief moments of connection and to find something, anything, that marks the passage of time: if it’s #clapforcarers, it must be Thursday.

The history of Whitsun is an example of how fundamental the precise observance of time has been for religions where time itself may be sacred. Pentecost means ‘fiftieth’, and it occurs fifty days after Easter (yes, whether it feels like it or not) because the Biblical event it commemorates took place on a specific date: the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, seven weeks after Passover. The Christian Pentecost is shaped by the anniversary of that festival, which is itself an anniversary, marking the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

Seven and fifty are both meaningful numbers, with a significance carried over into early Christian practice from Jewish law. As the Venerable Bede, medieval calendar expert, explains in his sermon for Pentecost, in Old Testament law the fiftieth year was the year of jubilee, when “the people were to be at rest from all work, all debts were to be cancelled, slaves were to go free”; so fifty represents heaven, the greatest rest of all, “when the labours and hardships of this age come to an end, and our debts, that is all our faults, have been forgiven”. From his perspective, this is a cycle of labour and rest, work and holiday, which goes back to the very beginning of time itself:

‘This number fifty is appropriate to signify inward rest, because it is arrived at by multiplying seven times seven and adding one. Under the law the people were ordered to work for six days and to rest on the seventh, and to plow and reap for six years and cease in the seventh, because the Lord completed the creation of the world in six days and rested from his work in the seventh.’

So the seven and fifty of the dating of Pentecost signify the heavenly Sabbath — eternal Bank Holiday — when all work and trouble cease. The idea is that these sacred numbers point beyond time to eternity, to a place where anniversaries and calendars are no more: to what Bede calls ‘festal times that are not annual but uninterrupted, not earthly but heavenly.’ Perhaps heaven is the only place where unmarked time is a blessing, and not a curse.

Eleanor Parker is a historian and medievalist. She is a columnist at History Today.