28 May 1904

What does it mean? Originally it was, and still is, observed as a religious festival; but the majority of people think no more about the meaning of the appellation than they bother themselves about the derivation of the singular names given to the months and the days of the week.

These serve the great purpose of distinguishing the months of the year and the days of the week from one another, and so the term “Whitsuntide” answers the purpose of distinguishing the present holiday season from several others, and we pay very small attention to its religious associations, except we belong to the clergy, or are devoted adherents of a type of religion which attaches great importance to fasts, and feasts, and Saints’ days, and has the whole round of the year mapped out so that each day in the calendar is a reminder of some great event that took place many centuries ago, or of some man or woman who at some time or other has been “numbered among the saints” by canonisation or otherwise.

This system of connecting religion with the almanac and making a “Christian year” always historically reminiscent has a great advantage when religion has been systemised into a series of forms and ceremonies; but it is a plan against which freer minds rebel as very mechanical. They enjoy an enlarged freedom when not bound down by a cut and dried programme for their year’s devotions and meditations. As for Whitsuntide, we may quote an old Church writer’s words to set before our readers as to the meaning of the religious festival. Writing on “Pentecost or Whitsunday” he used the following words:–

“After our Saviour was ascended, the fiftieth day of his resurrection, and just at the Jews’ feast of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost (our promised Comforter) was sent down upon the disciples assembled in Jerusalem, appearing in a visible form, and miraculously filling them with all manner of spiritual gifts and knowledge, tending to the Divine work they had in hand; whereby, they being formerly weak and simple men, were immediately enabled to resist all the powers of the kingdom of darkness, and to lay those strong foundations upon which the Catholic Church now standeth, both to the glory of God and our safety. In remembrance, therefore, of that great miraculous mystery, this day is solemnised.”

In Nelson’s “Festivals and Fasts of the Church of England,” another old work, we are informed that the name “Whitsunday” was given to the day “principally because this day being on of the stated times for baptism in the ancient church, those who were baptised put on white garments, as types of that spiritual purity they received in baptism.”

In the primitive church the adult converts, we are told, made up the body of the baptised persons, and the period between Easter and Whitsuntide was especially appointed for the administration of baptism. For some time prior to this period, they were instructed in the faith, and the newly-baptised persons or catechumens are said to have worn white garments on Whitsunday.

Others, however, repudiate this as a fanciful derivation, although it is the one generally put forward. They say it is not White Sunday at all, but Whitsun-day, and has nothing whatever to do with white robes. Our term “Whit-week” is a modern innovation, due to our inveterate habit of clipping. The old form is “Whitsun.” We have “Whitsun morris dance,” “Whitsun pastorals,” and “Whitsun ales,” but not the abbreviated form of word which is now so common.

Like Easter, this is a movable festival, being seven weeks after Easter. In Scotland the date of Whitsunday was fixed in 1693 by Act of Parliament, and it is always on the 15th of May, being a quarter day for payment of rents and charges of tenancy, which could not well be effected if it were a movable date, as we have in England.

The week before Whitsunday is also a notable one in the Christian calendar. It is called Rogation week. Extraordinary prayers are said to have been appointed in the third century for the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, as a preparation for the devout observance of “Holy Thursday” or; “Ascension Day.” In some parts, this week is known by the curious name of crop week or grass week.

It is also called “procession week,” the perambulation of parishes having usually been made in this week. We have altered that in modern practice, for there never was such a “perambulation” of the parish as we have during Whitsun week with Sunday School processionists. Fortunately, we have considerably improved in some respects upon the system in vogue a few hundred years ago.

It might be supposed from what has gone before that the people were very devout in their observance of some of these old festivals; but there is another side to the picture which we would not much care to see presented at the present day. Here is an extract from and old English writer:

“In certain towns where drunken Bacchus bears sway, about Christmas and Easter, Whitsuntide, or some other time, the churchwardens of every parish, with the consent of the whole parish, provide half-a-score or twenty quarters of malt, whereof some they buy of the Church stock, and some is given them of the parishioners themselves, every one conferring somewhat, according to his ability; which malt being made into very strong ale or beer, is set to sale, either in the church or some other place assigned to that purpose. Then, when this is set abroach, well is he that can get the soonest to it, and spend the most at it.” Very good, this, for an old Puritan!

If such a thing were done now-a-days there would be a bigger howl raised over it than there has been over the Government Licensing Bill. Yet how sanctimoniously some of these old revellers could write! Burton, of “Anatomy of Melancholy” fame, tells us: “For my part, I will subscribe to the King’s declaration, and was ever of that mind, those May games, wakes, and Whitsun ales etc, if they be not at unreasonable hours, may justly be permitted”; and, he adds, “better do so than worse as without question otherwise (such is the corruption of man’s nature) many of them will do.” Now-a-days we try to provide amusements to keep people out of the ale-house, but then they encouraged them to go to the ale-house to keep them out of worse mischief.

At the present time we cannot refer to Whitsuntide in any disparaging manner. All the great engagements of the period are of a most creditable description. Very few indeed regard it as a period for exceptional drinking and debauchery, although possibly there is now more ale drunk per head in England than ever there has been. We have the annual gatherings of the Friendly Societies, held in different parts of this kingdom, great prudential organisations which do immense good among the industrial classes. We have great Volunteer encampments throughout the country also, where men of a military turn have an opportunity of usefully a brief holiday for their own benefit and the advantage of the country.

The Co-operative Congress is also held at Whitsuntide, and we always read the same account of progress and expansion. It is the one branch of trade which never appears to look behind itself. The record is amazing, and there appears to be no sign that the movement has even approached its zenith. There are vast fields of enterprise which it has not attempted to cover. Into some of them it has been almost forced by circumstances over which it had no control.

This year the Christian Endeavour Federation has been holding its annual meetings. This is a form of religious activity of modern growth, which, like the P.S.A. movement , affords and opening for social intercourse among the masses of the people which are not fully enjoyed in connection with the ordinary services of most of the religious communities in our midst. But the Sunday Schools have longest identified themselves with this festival; at any rate, in this part of the United Kingdom.

If we have no catechumens arrayed in white garments we have thousands of Sunday School children perambulating our streets in garments, not only of shining white, but of all the hues of the rainbow. Perhaps there is nothing more noticeable in these long processions of Sunday School children than the great improvement gradually effected in the dresses and millinery of the girls and the clothing of the boys. Much of this may be due to the improved circumstances of the parents, but much must also be attributed to the advances which have been made in the chemical treatment of the fabrics to produce such a remarkable variety of delicate tints.

The Sunday School is usually regarded as of comparatively modern origin, owing its existence to Robert Raikes, of Gloucester, conjointly with the Rev Thomas Stock, in the year 1780. There are, however, records of several earlier undertakings of the same description. Cardinal Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, introduced the Sunday instruction of children two hundred years before Raikes set up his school. In the next century Alleine in England, and, a century later, Blair, in Scotland, and Lindsey, in Yorkshire, conducted Sunday Schools.

At least a dozen independent “originators” of Sunday Schools have been named, and this may be taken as good proof that Sunday Schools meet a want which cannot otherwise be supplied, except, to a certain extent, by religious instruction in day schools.

Those who are most zealous in Sunday School work are not always supporters of religious teaching in the day school; while great sticklers for day school religion are often ready to pronounce Sunday Schools a failure. There is no occasion for them to fail if the teachers are not themselves failures. Perhaps the Sunday Schools were best appreciated when they imparted secular instruction, just as some of the day schools claim extra credit for themselves because they impart religious instruction. People think, probably, they are getting a bigger pennyworth when their children have the Church Catechism stuffed into them as well as the alphabet and multiplication table.

In conclusion, a word may be added about the large number of accidents to the riders of cycles, motor cycles, and motor cars, which are quite modern Whitsuntide developments, and very sad ones, due, no doubt, in the main to furious and reckless driving. We are afraid that it will be a long time before a reasonable amount of safety will be ensured on roads crowded with so many ambitious riders who have little regard for their own lives or the lives of anybody else.

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