Whit walking

This is Whit Sunday. Saturday’s Face to Faith, in the Guardian, confusingly said that Easter lasts seven weeks and includes Whit/Pentecost. (I see I’m too much of a heathen to have realised that it’s still Easter. )

Whitsun is such an impressive name for a festival. It’s like “Walpurgisnacht.” I am impelled to Google it.

Pentecost is also known as “Whitsun” (or “Whit Sunday”) in the United Kingdom. The week beginning on Whit Sunday is called “Whitsuntide” (formerly also spelled “Whitsontide”) or “Whitsun Week”. The term is derived from Middle English whitsonday, from Old English hw?ta sunnandæg, “White Sunday”, in reference to the white ceremonial robes formally worn on this day. An alternative derivation is from “Wit” or “Wisdom” Sunday, the day when the Apostles were filled with wisdom by the Holy Spirit (Wikipedia)

Bugger the “alternative derivation.” A festival that still bears an Anglo-Saxon name impresses the hell out of me.

The only two other Germanic languages to name this holiday ‘Whitsunday’ are Faroese and Icelandic, where it is called Hvítusunnudagur and Hvítasunnudagur (White-Sunday), respectively. (Wikipedia again)

So Whit seems to be a very Far-Northern-European holiday. Indeed, even within England, it’s very much a Northern thing. Whit Walks are still held in Lancashire on Whit Friday, a Day I had certainly never heard of before. ( It’s the Friday after Whitsunday. ) They involve parades, with brass bands and women  wearing white dresses.

As far as I can make out, Whit Walks are a folk custom from the years of early industrialisation. (Spinning the Web. ) They have been held in the mill areas around Manchester (and in Yorkshire) since about 1800. Showing off new spring clothes seems to be a crucial part of the ritual.

Oldham and Saddleworth Whit Friday website has a 1961 photo that looks as if it was taken in Fairyland,.
Whit Walk in Stalybridge 1961

Ethereal Gothic novel style heroine; slightly spooky children and Les Dawson style matriarchs, wearing hats and gloves. Wow. I admit to being less enamoured of the Brass Band Competition stuff. I love the whole idea of it. I just don’t enjoy the sound of brass instruments, especially in a mass format.

Where do these traditions come from? Internet sources tend to stress the “clothes” wearing thing, either as an opportunity for mill-owners to show off their products or as part of the survival strategies of the poor.

One of the traditions of the Whit Walks is for those taking part to wear new clothes for the occasion. In harder times this was something to look forward to as children would rarely get new clothes, more often receiving handed-down clothes from older siblings or relations. …..
Another custom, still in practice, is for people watching the walk from the pavement to look out for people they know taking part in the walk and to run forward and give them money (From Ashton-under- Lyne.com)

I must say, I’m not convinced by the “advertising” explanation. The Lancashire mills produced cotton for much of the world, rather than for a few Lancashire villagers. Industrialisation was invented there, ffs. I can’t imagine any branding benefit that cotton-mill owners would gain from passing out free clothing to people who couldn’t afford to buy more and who would only be parading their wares in front of equally poor people.

In any case, I am still baffled about the origin of the Whit walks. Were they rural customs brought to the city by the peasants who had turned machine-minders? Nowhere else in England seems to have such a tradition. The medieval Whitsun tradition that is most often mentioned on the Internet involves ale. (Like most medieval traditions, basically. Oh, and that would be most modern festivals, too. )

A site called homely divinity does mention walking in the context of Whitsun tradition.

“… the custom of walking barefoot through the dewy grass on Whitsunday morning.”.

(That magic May dew strikes again.)

The site talks about other notable medieval aspects of Whitsun – decorating churches with greenery and using purpose-built deus ex machina devices to release doves in church. Morris dancing. Wow. Morris dancing. Keep your brass bands, give me Morris dancing.

And the “Green Man”:

Carvings of the Green Man appear in British churches beginning in the 12th century. His prototype, of course, is much older. His origins are to be found in the ancient god of the woodlands who was known as Sylvanus by the Romans and Cernunnos by the Celts and was related to Dionysos, the Greek god of the vine and its fruit. ……

So, granting this site an unearned unspuriousness (because it suits me at the moment…) Whit is just another old non-Christian festival with a Christian overlay. (Well, duh. ) It’s a bit sad that all that exuberant May celebration stuff, like Maypoles and Morris dancing dwindled to a sedate walk in a white dress, but still, it’s something. Respect, Oldham & Saddleworth, Bolton, Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, et al.