Rites of spring

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Some festivals are at risk of being forgotten. David Self looks at Pentecost

When the festival of Whitsun comes to mind, I risk sounding like a poor imitation of a Hovis commercial: "When I were a lad in Manchester, we knew what Whit was all about. Why, I carried that banner the length of Market Street in pouring rain."

Not only was Whitsunday a day for Christian celebration that ranked close behind Christmas and Easter in importance, but the whole week was a major secular holiday throughout north-west England. Its highlight was the Whit walk. At the head of the procession would march the local brass band. Then came children from various parishes, the girls always dressed in white and many carried banners emblazoned with the name of their church or Sunday school. Following them marched parents, teachers and other adults.

In Manchester, the Anglican communities walked on Whit Monday. Led by the Bishop of Manchester and the Cathedral choir, the procession wound its way through the shopping centre, whatever the weather. On Whit Friday, it was the turn of the Roman Catholics, led by the Bishop of neighbouring Salford, with Irish pipers playing "Land of Hope and Glory" as well as more traditional Irish tunes. In later years, the Italian community would parade with a statue of the Virgin Mary.

The point of the processions, which grew out of the Victorian Sunday school movement, was to witness the faith. Whitsun was one of the days of the year on which people were traditionally baptised or "christened" (the other being Easter Sunday) - the initiation rite of the Christian church. For this rite of passage they wore white clothes, hence the name White Sunday, which later became "Whitsun".

In most countries, and now also in churches in this country, Whitsun is more usually called Pentecost, because it falls 50 days after Easter. "Pente" is derived from a Greek word meaning 50. Since the date of Easter changes from year to year, so too does the date of Whitsun or Pentecost. The Whit Monday holiday may therefore fall in the second half of May or early June.

In the late Sixties, legislation was passed to fix what is now properly called the Spring bank holiday on the last Monday of May. As a result, the secular holiday may not coincide with the Christian festival - as happens thisyear, with Pentecost falling on June 3.

For Christians, Whitsun is a reminder of the occasion, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus, when his disciples met to pray in an upstairs room in Jerusalem - possibly the same room in which they had shared supper with him the night before his crucifixion. They had assembled to mark the Jewish spring harvest festival of Shavuot (also known as Pentecost because it occurs 50 days after Passover).

As they were praying (so we read in the second chapter of the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles), there suddenly came a sound like "the rush of a mighty wind". They saw what appeared to be tongues of fire on each of their heads but they were not harmed in any way. They deduced that this sign was the realisation of a promise made by Jesus: that he would send them (and all Christians) his Holy Spirit as a source of strength and comfort in their future work and daily lives.

The disciples went then into the streets to preach the Christian faith for the first time. Pentecost is thus sometimes known as "the birthday of the church". The event is also commemorated in the mitre, a flame-shaped head-dress worn on ceremonial occasions by bishops, successors of the original disciples.

In some countries, the festival is often marked by the release of a white dove, the traditional symbol in art for the Holy Spirit. In some French churches, trumpets are sounded as a reminder of the rushing wind while other communities make and fly kites as a reminder.

In the Jewish religion, Shavuot celebrates the first fruits of the fields, especially the early wheat, and the foods associated with the festival include specially baked loaves made in the shape of sheaves of corn, and also dairy products, notably cheesecake. The Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony by which a Jewish boy becomes a "son of the law" and enters the adult Jewish community, often takes place at this time. This is because Shavuot also commemorates the Giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, and its acceptance by the Jewish people.Shavuot does not automatically coincide with the Christian Pentecost - this year it is observed on May 28 and 29.

Pentecost, a particularly cheerful festival, can therefore be said to mark the founding of both the Jewish and Christian religions.


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