Whitsun (also Whitsunday, Whit Sunday or Whit) is the name used in the UK for the Christian festival of Pentecost, the seventh Sunday after Easter, which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples (Acts of the Apostles chapter 2). In England it took on some characteristics of Beltane, which originated from the pagan celebration of Summer's Day, the beginning of the Summer half-year, in Europe. Whitsuntide, the week following Whitsunday, was one of three vacation weeks for the medieval villein; on most manors he was free from service on the lord's demesne this week, which marked a pause in the agricultural year. Whit Monday, the day after Whitsun, remained a holiday in the UK until 1971 when the movable holiday was replaced with the fixed Spring Bank Holiday in late May. Whit was the occasion for varied forms of celebration. In the North West of England, church and chapel parades called Whit Walks still take place at this time (sometimes on Whit Friday, the Friday after Whitsun). Typically, the parades include brass bands and choirs; girls attending are dressed in white. Traditionally, Whit Fairs (sometimes called Whitsun Ales) took place. Other customs such as morris dancing are associated with Whit, although in many cases they have been transferred to the Spring Bank Holiday.
The name is a contraction of "White Sunday", attested in "The Holy-Ghost, which thou did send on Whit-Sunday" in the Old English homilies, and parallel to the mention of hwitmonedei in the early 13th-century Ancrene Riwle. Walter William Skeat noted that the Anglo-Saxon word also appears in Icelandic hvitasunnu-dagr, but that in English the feast was always called Pentecoste until after the Norman Conquest, when white (hwitte) began to be confused with wit or understanding. According to one interpretation, the name derives from the white garments worn by catechumens, those expecting to be baptised on that Sunday. Moreover, in England white vestments, rather than the more usual red, were traditional for the day and its octave. A different tradition is that of the young women of the parish all coming to church or chapel in new white dresses on that day. However, Augustinian canon, John Mirk (c1382 - 1414), of Lilleshall Abbey, Shropshire, had another interpretation:
Good men and wimmen, this day (Dies Penthecostes) is called Wytsonday by cause the holy ghost bought wytte and wisdom into Crists dyscyples, and so by prechying after in all Cristendom and fylled him full of holy Wytte
Thus, he thought the root of the word was "wit" (formerly spelt "wyt" or "wytte") and Pentecost was so-called to signify the outpouring of the wisdom of the Holy Ghost on Christ's disciples.
The following day is Whit Monday, a name coined to supersede the form Monday in Whitsun-week used by John Wycliffe and others. The week following Whit Sunday is known as "Whitsuntide" or "Whit week".
In the German language, the term "Weißer Sonntag" (literally: "White Sunday") does not refer to Whitsunday but rather to the first Sunday after Easter, known in English as either "Octave Day of Easter" or "Low Sunday". Whitsunday is known as "Pfingstsonntag" ("Pentecost Sunday").
As the first holiday of the summer Whitsun was one of the favourite times in the traditional calendar and Whit Sunday or the following week was a time for celebration. This took the form of fêtes, fairs, pageants and parades with Whitsun ales and Morris dancing in the south of England and Whit walks and wakes in the north. A poster advertising the Whitsun festivities at Sunbury, Middlesex in 1778 listed the following attractions:
On Whit Monday, in the morning, will be a punting match...The first boat that comes in to receive a guinea...In the afternoon a gold-laced hat, worth 30s. to be cudgell'd for...On Whit Tuesday, in the morning, a fine Holland smock and ribbons, to be run for by girls and young women. And in the afternoon six pairs of buckskin gloves to be wrestled for.
In Manchester during the 17th century the Kersal Moor Whit races were the great event of the year when large numbers of people turned the area into a giant fairground for several days. With the coming of industrialisation it became convenient to close down whole towns for a week in order to clean and maintain the machinery in the mills and factories. The week of closure, or wakes week, was often held at Whitsuntide. A report in John Harlan and T.T. Wilkinson's Lancashire Folk lore (1882) reads:
It is customary for the cotton mills etc., to close for Whitsuntide week to give the hands a holiday; the men going to the races etc. and the women visiting Manchester on Whit-Saturday, thronging the markets, the Royal Exchange and the Infirmary Esplanade, and other public places: And gazing in at the shop windows, whence this day is usually called 'Gaping Sunday'.
In literature 
- The Whitsun Weddings is a poem and the title of a collection by Philip Larkin;
- Whitsun, a poem by Sylvia Plath;
- "Whitsunday in Kirchstetten" is a poem by W. H. Auden from his collection About the House.
- Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory has the Knights of the Round Table witness a divine vision of the Holy Grail on a Whitsunday, prompting their quest to find its true location.
- In Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, Act 4, Scene 4, Perdita imagines that she plays "as I have seen them do in Whitsun pastorals".
- Several chapters on Jeff Wheeler's Muirwood Trilogy revolve around Whitsunday and its significance and impact on Muirwood's inhabitants;
See also 
- Whitsun Ale (esp., English), a county fair with competitions, morris dancing, and music, usually sponsored by a local pub or tavern.
- Counting of the Omer
- Jones, Prudence; Pennick, Nigel (20 February 1997). A history of pagan Europe. Routledge. p. 124. ISBN 0-415-15804-4. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- The others being Yuletide, the week following Christmas, and Easter Week, the week following Easter that ended at Hocktide (Homans 1991).
- George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, 2nd ed. 1991:369.
- Both noted in Walter William Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. "Whitsun".
- Anon (29 May 1869). "Whitsuntide". The Manchester Times (Manchester, UK).
- Anon. "Whitsuntide". The Free Online Dictionary. Farlex Inc. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- Roud, Steve (31 March 2008). The English Year (eBook). ePenguin. ISBN 978-0-14-191927-0.
- Dobkin, Monty (1999). Broughton and Cheetham Hill in Regency and Victorian times. Neil Richardson. ISBN 1-85216-131-0.