by Heather Elvidge
Next week is Whitsuntide. The former bank holiday Monday used to provoke some puzzlement – what was it for? And what is whit? So when the public holiday was moved to the Late Spring Bank Holiday, Whit was easily forgotten.
Christians did not forget, because the seventh Sunday after Easter celebrates Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the apostles with divine knowledge. Whit Sunday used to be a popular time for confirmation and baptism, which is probably how the day got its name. The candidates wore white clothes, and the old English word for white is whitan.
A holiday spirit prevailed for the rest of Whit week with Miracle plays, fairs and popular games such as archery, wrestling, and cheese rolling.
Churches organised social events called Whitsun Ales that entertained parishioners with food, drink, dancing, and sports. However, in the nineteenth century the Ales were getting a bit out of hand with drunkenness and violence. The Friendly Societies, which provided sickness insurance for working folk, started to promote healthy Whit Walks as an alternative to the Ales.
Originally a kind of Beating the Bounds without the beating, Whit Walks attracted huge numbers despite being teetotal. The Friday parades at Salford and Manchester were the largest and served as inspiration for later North of England galas.
Like other festive times Whit had special food: duck, roast veal, home-cured ham, Banbury cakes, and cheesecakes. These were the type that we call Yorkshire curd tart, made with cheese curds, egg, spices and currants.
A Whit curd tart had a very special ingredient. When a cow calves she produces rich, yellow milk called beestings, or colostrum, which is essential for her calf’s wellbeing. This was a delicacy; after the calf drank its fill, the remainder made an extra-creamy curd tart.
By the end of the twentieth century Whitsuntide had become a ghost of its former self. Most surviving customs shifted to the Late Spring Bank Holiday, including the famous cheese-rolling races at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire.
Whit Monday is still a special day at one of Britain’s remaining sites of pilgrimage, the Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk.
Although shrines were usually built to house the relics of a holy person, at Walsingham the spur was a mystical experience. In 1061 the widow of a Norman lord had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who showed her the house where Jesus grew up. The widow was told to memorise it so a replica could be made, and in due course her carpenters built the house close to two ancient holy wells.
Later a stone chapel was built over it. Pilgrims from all over Europe flocked to see “The Holy House of Nazareth” where miracles took place. The humble house became as magnificent as any medieval shrine, but its decorations of gold, silver and precious stones were to be its downfall. In the Reformation this important centre of pilgrimage was reduced to rubble.
Reconstruction of the shrine began in 1931. Today around 100,000 people a year sample the healing water of Walsingham’s holy wells, with Whit Monday the chief day for pilgrimage.