Monday, June 05, 2006

Whit Monday and Whitsun Ales

The day after Pentecost is a traditional holiday which still hangs on in many countries that were once part of Christendom. Up until this year it was a holiday in France; this was part of the reason that this weekend was chosen for the Chartres Pilgrimage. It's still a "bank holiday" in Ireland and, I think, in the U.K.

But it used to be much more than a day off. From the U.K. Traditions website:

Two main traditions persist, particularly in the North of England - Whit Walks and Whitsun Ales. Whit weekend, being a three-day break, is, like May Day, an important date on the Morris-Dancing calendar, and it also marks the start of the Well Dressing season.

Whit Walks are now confined almost exclusively to the industrial towns of northern England although they were once much more widespread.
The whole community assembles at a central point - usually a school or church - and parades around the town or village. The parades will be led by a brass band with the clergy and local dignitaries, followed by the uniformed organisations - Scouts and Guides, Boy's Brigade etc., and finally local families all in their best new clothes with the girls dressed in white, Whitsun being a corruption of White Sunday. The Whit Walkers will very likely make their way to the local green or playing field and there the "Whitsun Ale" will begin.

A Whitsun Ale is, despite its name, not a type of beer! Whitsun Ales are country fairs, with sports and competitions, Morris dancing displays, music and of course socialising, eating and drinking, in fact a major event on the social calendar.
After the Civil War (English, not American) the Puritan government banned all types of merrymaking but after the Restoration of Charles II, Whitsun Ales became a major event - helped no doubt by the fact that Charles was born on a Whit Monday and so encouraged the celebration. The Ales are often sponsored by a pub or brewery, giving rise to the misconception that the event is named for the beer!

This site has another opinion on the origin of "Whitsun Ales" and a bit about bread and cheese throwing. If you've actually got this day off and have yet more time on your hands try this site which has even more.