Yesterday morning I met an assorted group of writers from North-West England in Denton Library, on the outskirts of Greater Manchester, where we shared a set of poems and stories on the general theme of May, Whitsun, Maypoles and Spring. Here’s the piece I contributed.
Fifty days after Easter; Pentecost, the seventh Sunday that closes the Easter season. The Holy Spirit conferred understanding on the Apostles, whose heads were lit with tongues of flame. The Old and Middle English “wit” meant “understanding”. So this was the Day of Understanding.
Or was it? Were our beloved Whitsuntide celebrations a memory of Beltane, though Beltane was traditionally celebrated at the beginning of May? Beltane was the start of summer, when cattle were driven out to their pastures and rituals were performed to protect the people and their homes and livestock and to encourage growth. Bonfires were lit and the people walked or ran around and through them. So it was a time of fire; tongues of flame. Household fires were doused and relit from the Beltane bonfire. Houses, people and cattle were decorated with yellow spring flowers representing fire. Holy wells were visited and people bathed their faces in the Beltane dew to ensure the continuation or restoration of youth and beauty.
It was after the Normans arrived that the Old English name Pentecoste for this season was changed, but the new name was ambiguous. The Normans couldn’t distinguish wit (understanding) from hwitte (white), so the Day of Understanding was also the Day of Whiteness. But after all, why not? This is the time of May-blossom, a white time in the countryside – the time when Nature’s wisdom reasserts itself through the onward march of spring. Whitsun was one of the three baptismal seasons, when candidates for baptism wore white. But perhaps in unspoken recognition of the Beltane tradition, Whitsuntide became a holiday season; and so, in a few isolated places, it has remained despite the attempts of government to displace it.
During feudal times, the week following Whit Sunday was recognised as one of the three annual holidays for villeins, who had no need to work on the lord’s demesne again until the week was ended. And after the industrial revolution, the mills were shut down during Whit week so the machinery could be overhauled – and the workers took a holiday. Irrespective of the possible connection with Beltane, the tradition of the Whitsuntide holiday is ancient.
Do you remember the Whit Walks, with their brass bands and the girls dressed in – of course – white, like candidates for baptism or June brides to be, as though they were clad in May-blossom? And the Whitsun fairs, or Whitsun Ales, when Whit Monday was a riot of games and celebrations? They’re still celebrated in some villages, and even in parts of some large towns, as they should, but they ceased to be England-wide almost forty years ago.
In 1978 the government decided that Whitsuntide would no longer be a holiday, or the official name for a holiday. Instead, there would be a Spring Bank Holiday on the final Monday in May, more or less coinciding with the traditional Whitsuntide in most years, though of course the exact date of Whitsun depended on that of Easter. The tradition of the week-long holiday, stretching back through the early days of industry to our feudal past, has disappeared from much of England thanks to government edict.
But even the government can’t control the arrival of Spring. The May-blossom returns every year to remind us that this is still the time of whiteness – and the time when Nature’s understanding reasserts itself.