Fire From Heaven: Pentecost and Whitsun

Fire From Heaven: Pentecost and Whitsun May 29, 2020

This post offer a translation between British and American English, and suggests why you really should know about “Whitsun.” Although the name does survive in parts of the USA, it is no longer anything like as common as it once was in this country. I see my spellcheck identifies Whitsun as a likely error for something else, presumably an actual English word.

This coming Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the origins of which can be found in Acts 2. As I have described, this feast is widely celebrated in nations that are or were predominantly Christian, sometimes spectacularly:

In Italy it was customary to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues …. The Italian name Pascha rossa comes from the red colors of the vestments used during today’s Solemnity. In France, it was customary to blow trumpets during the Divine Service, to recall the sound of the mighty wind that accompanied the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost became the focus of many Spring customs. In different parts of rural Europe, Pentecost was traditionally associated with trees, especially the birch: Pentecost trees were planted, people made birch wreathes. Church services were often held in the open air. Even today, Whit Monday is a public holiday in many countries, including European nations like Denmark and the Netherlands that we sometimes think of today as radically secularized. Pentecost/Pfingsten continues to be hugely popular in many German-speaking regions.

There is a striking east-west division here. Western and Catholic Christians generally stressed themes of fire and redness. Russians and the Orthodox emphasized green, growth, renewal, and vegetation, and Pentecost Sunday, Troitsa or Trinity, is Green Sunday. Liturgical colors are green.

Britain and Ireland have some very rich traditions about this day, but under its older name, which is Whitsun, White Sunday, possibly named from white baptismal garments. That was duly followed by Whit Monday, and together, these came to be a principal celebration of Spring. In parts of England, other festivities followed on the next Friday, Whit Friday, so that “Whitsuntide” extended to a whole week.

One comment about origins. I have always assumed that the English word white used to mean “holy” as well as the color, as is still the case in other Indo-European languages. In Russian, svet variously means light, or pure, or blessed, or holy, and that comes from the exact same root as the English white, and its various Germanic equivalents. Older sources (particularly in the nineteenth century) commonly translate Whitsun as “Holy Sunday,” which is very apt, but that interpretation is not so often given today. I’m not sure why. I note the helpful comment that “The derivation of the word Whitsun is still unclear, despite a great deal of discussion and argument by experts and others for well over a hundred years.” Ah, academics!

Wherever it came from, Whitsuntide was a key turning point of the year, and a beloved holiday for hard working people who did not get too many opportunities for leisure. Over the centuries, local communities developed a wide range of ritual observances, especially fairs, processions, parades, and Whit walks. There were Whitsun ales and Whitsun pastorals, singing and sports, mumming and Morris dancing. Also cheese rolling and cheese throwing: no, really. It’s worth reading the wide-ranging sketch of Whitsun-related customs here. Extended Whitsun was a core part of village life, and later of industrial working class life and leisure.

So large and important was this holiday that it very often features in English literature. I won’t begin to list the references here, but if you visit the Wikipedia page on Whitsun, you’ll find a stunning range of examples and quotes from – well, from pretty much everybody. Shakespeare and Dickens, James Joyce and Agatha Christie, H. G. Wells and Christian Rossetti, even Sylvia Plath and Thomas Pynchon. Still in the 1950s, this time of new growth and fertility was a very appropriate time for marriages, and Whit Saturday was thought especially suitable: see Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem The Whitsun Weddings. Everything seemed to happen at or around Whitsuntide.

Whitsun/Pentecost has generally suffered from European secularization, despite the day still being a holiday in many societies. Only in the 1970s did it lose much of its significance in the UK when it was merged into an official Spring Bank Holiday (this year, the holiday fell last Monday, on May 25, our Memorial Day). Many or most of the customs have declined sharply in an urbanized European society. It’s hard to bless the village’s cattle, or to decorate the special Pentecost Ox, when you live in a downtown apartment. The neighbors would talk.

Even so, it’s not too long since that Whitsun was a cherished and fundamental part of British life, and if you miss that, you will fail to understand a large part of literature, and of social history. Hard though this might be to believe today, Pentecost was a very important thing even before there were Pentecostals.

In a very different mode from Whitsun Weddings, this is a wonderful time to read T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. Written in the middle of the Second World War, the poem invokes the German incendiary bombs then dropping on British cities, all that terrifying fire from the sky, and imagines them transformed into Pentecostal fires of faith:

The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one dischage from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –

To be redeemed from fire by fire.

I wish you a Happy Whitsun.





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