1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whitsunday

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WHITSUNDAY, or Pentecost (Lat. Pentecoste, Gr. πεντηκοστή sc. ὴµέρα, Fr. Pentecôte, Ger. Pfingsten, fr. O. H. Ger. fimfchustin), one of the principal feasts of the Christian Church, celebrated on the fiftieth (πεντηκοστή) day after Easter to commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. The day became one of the three baptismal seasons, and the name Whitsunday is now generally attributed to the white garments formerly worn by the candidates for baptism on this feast, as in the case of the Dominica in albis. The festival is the third in importance of the great feasts of the Church and the last of the annual cycle commemorating the Lord. It is connected with the Jewish Pentecost (q.v.), not only in the historical date of its origin (see Acts vii.), but in idea; the Jewish festival is one of thanks for the first-fruits of the earth, the Christian for the first-fruits of the Spirit. In the early Church the name of Pentecost was given to the whole fifty days between Easter and Whitsunday, which were celebrated as a period of rejoicing (Tertullian, De idolatr. c. 12, De bapt. 19, De cor. milit. 3, Apost. Canons, c. 37, Canons of Antioch, 30). In the narrower sense, as the designation of the fiftieth day of this period, the word Pentecost occurs for the first time in a canon of the council of Elvira (305), which denounces as an heretical abuse the tendency to celebrate the 40th day (Ascension) instead of the 50th, and adds: “juxta auctoritatem scripturarum cuncti diem Pentecostis celebremus.” There is plentiful evidence that the festival was regarded very early as one of the great feasts; Gregory Nazianzen (Orat. xliv. De Pentec.) calls it the “day of the Spirit” (ὴµέρα τοῦ Πνεύµατος), and in 385 the Peregrinatio Silviae (see Duchesne, Origines, App.) describes its elaborate celebration at Jerusalem. The code of Theodosius (xv. 5, De spectaculis) forbade theatrical performances and the games of the circus during the feast. The custom of hallowing the days immediately surrounding the festival is comparatively late. Thus, among others, the synod of Mainz in 813 ordered the celebration of an octave similar to that at Easter. The custom of celebrating the vigil by fasting had already been introduced. The duration of the festival was, however, ultimately fixed at three days. In the Church of England this is still the rule (there are special collects, gospels and epistles for Monday and Tuesday in Whitsun week); in the Lutheran churches two days only are observed.

In the middle ages the Whitsun services were marked by many curious customs. Among these described by Durandus (Rationale div. off. vi. 107) are the letting down of a dove from the roof into the church, the dropping of balls of fire, rose-leaves and the like. Whitsun is one of the Scottish quarter-days, and though the Church festival is movable, the legal date was fixed for the 15th of May by an act of 1693. Whitmonday, which, with the Sunday itself, was the occasion for the greatest of all the medieval church ales, was made an English Bank Holiday by an act passed on the 25th of May 1871.

See Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien (1889); W. Smith and Cheetham, Dic. of Christian Antiquities (1874-1880); Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (1904), xv. 254, s.v. “Pfingsten.” For the many superstitions and observances of the day see P. H. Ditchfield, Old English Customs (1897); Brand, Antiquities of Great Britain (Hazlitt's edit., 1905); B. Picart, Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples (1723).