The English name for the Church festival otherwise called Pentecost, held on the seventh Sunday after Easter as the commemoration of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the inspiration of the Apostles. The derivation of the word Whitsun is still unclear, despite a great deal of discussion and argument by experts and others for well over a hundred years. The first mention of the word in English is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1067, as ‘hwitan sunnan daeg’. Whitsun was one of the festivals in the pre-Reformation Church when the biblical story was dramatized to educate the parishioners.
In English tradition, Whitsun has long been a day of feasting and merrymaking, as befits its time of year as well as its religious origins. Medieval church ales, wakes, feasts, and revels survived in the fětes, sports days, fairs, and other convivial meetings of later periods, for which Whitsun was well known, but, in the secular sphere, Whitsun finally lost all meaning when its Bank Holiday status was taken away in the 1970s, and the Spring Bank Holiday created to replace it.
Whitsun merrymaking had a long-standing and proverbial connection with the morris dance, as evidenced in Shakespeare's Henry V (II. iv). Another widely reported custom, which apparently died out in the late 19th century, was the decoration of churches with boughs of trees, especially birch, placed in holes at the ends of pews and elsewhere, and another decorating custom, Well-dressing starts at Whitsun in some villages, and other customs and beliefs have also clustered around the season. Whitsun was one of those times (the others being New Year and Easter) when it was important to wear new clothes if you could. Opie and Tatem list the earliest reference to this in 1626, and the latest from 1985. This developed into a sort of visiting custom in south Yorkshire, where children would visit neighbours and relatives to show off their new clothes and hope to get a little money in return (L&L 1:3 (1970), 15). The desire for new clothes was also linked to another strong tradition, particularly popular in, but not exclusive to, the Lancashire/Yorkshire area, the custom of Whit Walks. These were organized primarily by churches (of various denominations) and involved the faithful processing around the neighbourhood, in their best clothes and if possible wearing white, led by a local band. At key points there would be mass open-air hymn singing, and an outdoor tea at the end of the day. In many cases it was the Sunday Schools who organized the walks for children, and they could be large affairs indeed, with thousands taking part on the day:Whit-Monday, as usual in Manchester, was a great gala day for Sunday scholars. A procession of all the school children in connection with the Established Church, numbering about 16,000, took place in the morning through all the principal streets of the town. Each school was headed by its band of music … The remaining days of the week will be given up to processions by the children of other denominational schools … ‘(Croydon Chronicle (6 June 1868).