Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

What is Whitsun?

Here in England, this weekend, we are celebrating Whitsun with fairs, fun-runs and festivities.

If you live in a country that has a Christian tradition, you will have perhaps seen reference to “Pentecost” and, on rare occasions, to “Whit Sunday.” But what is Whitsun? What is Pentecost?

From an ecclesiastical i.e. “churchy” point of view, Pentecost was actually last weekend, but the UK authorities here squished-it together into “late May bank holiday” and thus reduced or decreased its original holy meaning, which may (or may not) have been intentional. I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Light in the Clouds

Anyway, I have to be careful here because this topic is not only difficult to handle (because it’s suggestive and uses vaguely moralising words) but it also requires tact because this is a challenging topic that many people can get very excited about. It is also difficult to analyse and understand what Whitsun and Pentecost is because we must delve into supernaturalism to properly understand it. So hold onto your hat! But if you’re a fantasy writer and a Myth & Magic fan, this will be no problem at all. And if you set your plots in a medieval European setting, you ought to know what Whitsuntide was like. Because it’s very special…

King Arthur held his most splendid parties at Whitsuntide!

King Arthur at Whitsun
King Arthur at Whitsun

Let’s put it this way: King Arthur always held his most splendid parties and feasts at Whitsuntide! Legend has it he got married to Guinevere on the day of the Pentecost. And it was at the feast of Pentecost that Arthur pulled the sword “Excalibur” from the stone. You’d perhaps be surprised if I told you that Whitsuntide is the third biggest Christian festival, almost as big and important as Christmas and Easter, and until recently was celebrated for a whole week (a week off work) with great feasting, and its own special rituals such as Whit Walks, Whit fairs, unique songs (like carols, but written especially for Whit-tide) Morris Dances, Whit Ales that were uniquely brewed for the occasion, and glamorous church services. The week after Whit Sunday, known as Whitsuntide, was a week-long celebration of feasting, games, parties, fairs, contests and parades, and much joy. Yet these days, unless people attend church, they don’t even recognise the word “Whitsun” much less understand what all the fuss is about.

Feasting at Whitsuntide

Whit Sunday is the seventh Sunday after Easter Day and celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ, as described in a book of the Holy Bible known as the “Acts of the Apostles.” Coincidentally, Whit Sunday falls during the ancient “First Harvest” festival, which is a prehistoric celebration of the first grain that’s been harvested in the fields, so ancient people prepared simple unleavened bread from the grain and dedicated it to God and there’d be a huge celebratory party right after. 

By one interpretation, the name WHIT derives from the white robes worn by those waiting to be baptised on this special Sunday of the religious year, although the day was correctly and ordinarily called Pentecost right up to (and beyond) the Norman conquest of Britain. So King Arthur knew this feast to be “Pentecost.” 

And here’s the Myth & Magic bit (which is when I have to tread especially carefully) — because to fathom all the celebrations at Pentecost, first we have to understand what the Holy Spirit is. Without a sense of what the Holy Spirit is, we will remain in a state of ignorance.

Breath of the Spirit

What is the Holy Spirit?

When I was a kid, we were told it was called the “Holy Ghost” though (I agree) this was a poor choice of word and calls forth the image of a man in a white-sheet going whoo: Spirit is a better word. The Holy Spirit is an aspect or an agent (if you will) of the Abrahamic Creator God, the God of Israel, the God of the Holy Bible. The Holy Spirit is the means by which this God communicates with his people or acts with (and through) them. Like most deities, the God of Israel cannot directly interfere in human lives, but might use messengers (angels, prophets, disciples) to communicate wishes or intentions. This God uses the Holy Spirit as a “force” to help or aid those messengers.

In this definition, Spirit means breath (in Latin, spiritus) and if you know the Scriptures well enough, you will remember that God’s spirit (his breath) swept over the waters like an invisible moving force when the earth was formed. This is how he created earth, the heavens, and all things visible and invisible. With breath. The breath of life. He told his followers that he would: “Pour spirit on [their] offspring” Isaiah 44:3 and it seems he did as promised on the day of the first Pentecost (which I will describe in a moment.) 

If the Holy Spirit is difficult to understand or explain, it’s because it is a quality that belongs to God, it is one of his most mystifying attributes so don’t worry if you don’t “get it” right way: The Holy Spirit is incommunicable and metaphysical.

The word Pentecost derives from the ancient Greek Pente (meaning fiftieth) and formerly meant the fiftieth day after harvesting the First Fruits of the field (ancient peoples would offer the first fruit of their crops to clergy… who would pass the offerings onto deities, and this would — hopefully — guarantee bumper crops later in the year). But, after the first Easter, Pente came to mean fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. 

Offering First Fruits

From what we know of the history of the first Christian Pentecost, the disciples of Jesus (whose leader, don’t forget, had been crucified, although he had risen and since then ascended to heaven) were all gathered in one place (a room) probably celebrating (like everyone else) the ancient Feast of First Fruits when a mighty rushing wind entered the room and tongues of fire appeared above them. According to the narrator of the Acts of the Apostles (we guess it was St. Luke the Evangelist, by the way, but we can’t be sure, who tells the story) the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues…

This fulfils a promise that Jesus had made when John baptized him with water: Jesus told the surrounding people he would baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit. It connects Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit together into what church-people like to call the “Holy Trinity.”

Mighty Rushing Wind

After this wind & fire came into the room, the disciples went “out into the world” spreading the Gospel and converting people to Christianity. I’ve always felt, and I don’t want this to sound frivolous, but I’ve always felt (I’m sure I’m not the only one) that the disciples were hanging around at “a loose end” until this amazing event happened (I guess you would have to call the event a supernatural manifestation) — because according to the New Testament this is when they all jumped into action and got (literally) jolted into doing what they were meant to be doing… i.e. evangelising the entire world.

According to some traditions, the Holy Spirit bestowed (and still grants) seven “gifts” to chosen disciples:

  1. Wisdom
  2. Understanding
  3. Counsel
  4. Fortitude
  5. Knowledge
  6. Piety 
  7. and, Fear of the Lord

tongues of fire

And because the notion of the Holy Spirit is so difficult to understand, it is frequently referred to or described in art and literature by metaphor or symbols: if you see emblems of fire, the dove, the wind, anointing (with oils) and lights in the clouds, these things usually refer to or symbolise the Holy Spirit (Espiritu Santo / Spiritus Sanctus.)

To this day, Christian priests, choirs and ministers wear red garments on Pentecost Sunday, recalling those first “tongues of fire.” 

Priest in Red Vestments

Of course, the Spirit of God is not an exclusively Christian or an Abrahamic idea: the concept of a breath-like life-force was known to many cultures throughout the world long before the Bible Stories were established.  

Many ancient peoples believed in a powerful, sacred, unifying force that resides within everything. They saw this force as the same unifying life force that flows through winds, through rocks, through trees, through birds, and through all animals; it is the same force God breathed into the first man. As a fundamental life force, it is a Holy Spirit because it unites humans with all natural things, so everything in the Universe is connected by the Spirit, all stars, all planets, the environment around us and all time. Isn’t that something worth celebrating?

So, if anyone asks you what Whitsun means, or what Pentecost is all about, tell them it’s about celebrating the “breath of life” and leave it at that. If that’s not good enough for them, they might not be worth the bother!

words: @neilmach May 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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