Archive for the ‘Whitsun’ Tag

A Time for Remembering – All Hallows to Bonfire Night: a teaching text and task, plus pictures   1 comment

All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en), October 31st

All Hallows Day/ All Saints Day, November 1st

All Souls Day, November 2nd


These festivals all have a common theme. They mark the coming of Winter, and the need for light and warmth as the nights get longer and the days colder. It is also a time for remembering. In this time, the Church remembers all those who have died, not just the great saints, but also those who are only remembered by their own families. Some of the acts of remembrance have their origins, or beginnings, in pre-Christian, or ‘pagan’ times.

Hallowe’en was the eve of the Celtic New Year, the Autumn festival in honour of the sun god, giving thanks for the harvest. The central part of the ceremony was the lighting of a bonfire celebrating Samhain, the lord of death, at the dying of the year, when he called together the souls of the ‘wicked’, or evil spirits, who were condemned to live in the bodies of animals. In Ireland, until recent times, the festival was a time for night walks and dressing up, wearing masks and telling stories about ghosts and witches. The games, still played today, included ‘bobbing for apples’, when children try to get apples out of a barrel of water using only their teeth. The parties are held by candlelight, with the candles shaded in lanterns made from vegetables which cast strange patterns against walls. Today, these are made from pumpkins, giving the celebrations the orange colours to go with the black. The lanterns were carried from door to door, with the children singing and dancing, rewarded for their efforts by a candle or a coin. This tradition survives in the ‘trick or treat’ custom, when the householder pays up to avoid having a trick played on them. The Irish people who settled in the USA took this custom with them, and it is still popular there today. It has also become a custom in Britain, where lantern-making and apple-bobbing were the main activities before.



All Saints Day is the one celebration, other than Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, which Catholics and Protestants have shared throughout the centuries in Britain and Ireland. Only the patron saints of the four countries are remembered on other days, but All Saints was a day for remembering all worthy Christians. On All Souls Day the Church remembers all those who have died. In the past, candles were lit and the home is made clean and tidy, so that the souls of the dead could visit. These days, in some churches, people give in the names of people they wish to be remembered in special prayers.



Bonfire Night comes at a good mid-way point between the end of Summer and Christmas as an excuse for a big bonfire and a lot of fun with fireworks and food, including burgers, sausages and hot potatoes with butter. Originally, an ‘effigy’ of Guy Fawkes was put on top of the fire and burnt to remember that on 4th November 1605 Guy, or Guido, was discovered underneath the House of Parliament with a large number of barrels of gunpowder. He later confessed, after torture, that he intended to use them to blow up the Palace of Westminster when the King was due to open Parliament the next morning, killing the King, his sons and his noble lords.

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November;

Gunpowder, treason and plot!

I see no reason why Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!”


‘Guy’ had been hired by a group of Catholic gentlemen from the Midlands, who were disappointed with King James for breaking his promise to allow them to worship in freedom. They planned to kill him and his sons and put his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, on the throne in his place. She was living at a house in the Midlands, near Coventry, with her tutor. The conspirators had to work in secret, of course, because they knew that many Catholics, as well as Protestants, would not support their ‘Plot’.  Robert Catesby was the leader of the Catholic gentlemen in this. Guy Fawkes, a soldier, was the Gunpowder expert. He took the name of John Johnson and pretended to be a servant of Thomas Percy, who was renting a house next to the Parliament building, then a much smaller one than the one we know today. Percy was responsible for the action in London, while Catesby gathered the ‘gentry’ and their servants near Coventry and provided them with horses and weapons. However, in order to provide all this, too many people were told about the Plot, and Robert Cecil, James’ ‘spy-master’ found out about it from one of the Catholic lords, a relative of one of the plotters, who was warned to stay away from the opening of Parliament.



English: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, ...

English: The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne and Wear Museums) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just before midnight on the eve of November 5th, Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellar below Westminster Palace in London, and the gunpowder barrels were uncovered. Fawkes was carrying a lantern, which can still be seen in the University of Oxford’s Library. He was tortured in the Tower of London, but did not give the names of his fellow-conspirators. They went on with their plan to seize the Princess Elizabeth the next day, but she had already been moved into the walled city of Coventry for safe-keeping. They rode through the Midlands, desperately trying to get support, but the Sheriff of Worcester’s men eventually cornered them at Holbeach House. Making a heroic, but hopeless, last stand, they were either shot or captured. Those who survived were tried and executed, along with Fawkes, who had already confessed. They were all hung by the neck, cut down while still alive, dragged through the streets of London until dead, and their bodies were cut into quarters. This was what happened to those found guilty of ‘treason’ against their king. People everywhere in Britain were horrified when the news of the plot spread, and bonfires were lit everywhere in joy at the survival of the King, his children, and his Parliament.


Effigies of Guy Fawkes were burnt on the bonfires, beginning a tradition which has continued for four hundred years until quite recently. To this day, when the monarch opens Parliament, the royal guard make a thorough search of the buildings for any modern-day terrorist and explosives. ‘Guys’ are still made by children in the week before Bonfire Night, and are paraded in the streets where passers-by are asked for ‘a penny for the guy’. Firework manufacturers also do well at this time of year, but serious accidents have led to restrictions in recent years, and most people now attend safe, professional firework displays, rather than holding parties in their back gardens as they did before. The biggest danger now comes from the fires themselves, with smoke drifting across motorways and main roads. Most people have long ago given up the anti-Catholic purpose of the event. Now, it simply provides a welcome and warming opportunity for coming together at what can be a miserable time of year, as Winter weather, with cold winds and hard rain, takes hold. The smoky atmosphere of a bonfire is ideal for enjoying sizzling sausages and buttered potatoes ‘baked in the jacket’.

Lewes Bonfire, Guy Fawkes effigy


However, the British haven’t entirely forgotten the plan to blow up Parliament and steal the young Princess Elizabeth from her tutor’s house, eventually to be made Queen Elizabeth II, a queen who would tolerate Catholics. In fact, she was a strong Protestant herself by this time, and her tutor, Lord Harington, wrote a letter a few months later in which he reported that she often said:

“What a Queen I would have been by these means. I would rather have been with my Royal Father in the Parliament House, than wear his crown on such a condition.”




Eight years later, on Valentine’s Day 1613, aged sixteen, she was married from her apartments in Whitehall in London (in what is now Downing Street, home of the Prime Minister), to the German Protestant Prince Frederick, and went to live with him in his fairy-tale castle at Heidelberg. He had a whole new ‘wing’ of the castle specially built for her. They later became the King and Queen of Bohemia until they were forced to flee after just one winter on the throne by the invading Hapsburgs. When Frederick was killed in battle trying to regain his kingdom, Heidelberg was also reduced to ruins by the Emperor’s army, and Elizabeth was forced to find refuge with her Dutch relatives in the Hague, where she became known as ‘the Queen of Hearts’, because what she lacked in money she made up for in her love for all around her, and she was much-loved in return. She was unable to return to England when Civil War broke out there, but her sons, Maurice and Rupert, born in Germany, went back to fight as ‘cavaliers’ for her younger brother, Charles Stuart. King Charles I declared war on Parliament, eventually losing to Oliver Cromwell’s ‘roundheads’ in 1648. He was tried and beheaded in 1649. Elizabeth did eventually return following the restoration of the monarchy in England under her nephew, Charles II, in 1660. When the last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, died in 1714, without children to succeed her, Elizabeth’s grandson, George I, became the first Hanoverian monarch of Great Britain. The current Queen, the real Elizabeth II, is directly descended from his German family.


Student  Task (complete for homework):

Imagine you in England on a school trip in November and have just attended Bonfire Night with your English host family. Write an e-mail to your brother, sister, or best friend in English, telling them the story of the Gunpowder Plot. Then describe how you saw November 5th being celebrated. (250-400 words).


Robin Moore,  A History of Coombe Abbey, Coventry, 1983

Alice Buchan, A Stuart Portrait, London, 1934

Whit Sunday (Seven Weeks after Easter Sunday)   1 comment

English: A Protestant Church altar decorated f...
English: A Protestant Church altar decorated for Pentecost with red burning candles and red banners and altar cloth depicting the fire and sound of blowing wind of the Holy Spirit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.   (Gerard Manley Hopkins)   Of the three major festivals in the Christian calendar, Whitsun is perhaps the least celebrated by people in Britain, certainly as a ‘folk’ festival, though it has become more important recently with the growth of the charismatic movement in churches. The coming of the Holy Spirit to revitalise the apostles and, through them, the whole church, is more difficult to picture, especially for children, than the events of Christmas and Easter week. In English culture, at least, Whitsun was upstaged by May Day. It is no longer merits a general ‘bank’ holiday in its own right in Britain, for the Monday following, though there is a late Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May, which may or may not coincide. In 2012, this holiday was postponed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the 2nd-5th June, to allow for a long weekend. In parts of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, ‘Ladies go Dancing at Whitsun’ still, as the song has it. The white clothes worn in these secular activities, as well as in churches for baptisms and confirmations, is the origin of the name in English, though other cultures use the original Greek name for the Hebrew festival of the fiftieth day after Passover, ‘Pentecost‘.

After the events of Easter Day, the disciples of Jesus were comforted and encouraged for forty days by his appearances before them. They were still looking for Christ’s kingdom to come and needed the presence of the King. However, Jesus told them that it was not for them to know how this kingdom would be achieved, but he would always be with them and they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then, forty days after his Resurrection, he went from their sight in the event which is commemorated by the Church on Ascension Day. Ten days later the apostles (now made up to twelve by the appointment of Matthias as treasurer, replacing Judas Iscariot) came together to celebrate Pentecost. As they talked, fearful of what might happen to them, a power came over them, in a moment of time, which they all experienced, and which, sweeping away their fears, emboldened them to go out to the crowds and to preach the gospel in such a way that all the pilgrims , gathered in Jerusalem from many lands and speaking many languages, could understand their enthusiastic message. Although, like Jesus, the disciples would have spoken a little Greek as well as their own colloquial Aramaic, and may have been able to read and write in Hebrew, they could not possibly, as uneducated Galileans, have learnt so many languages, especially the Persian and Asian languages. Even the fifty days they had been quietly preparing for their ministry would not have been long enough to learn the range of tongues required to preach confidently in each. The tongues of fire which ‘spread out and touched each person there’ remind one of the ‘dragon’s tongue’ symbol of the Welsh language Society.

They were so enthusiastic that the more cynical onlookers made fun of them, suggesting that they’d been drinking wine at breakfast, as it was only just nine o’ clock. This was how the missionary work of the Church began, bringing death in many cruel forms to some of the twelve, and many others.   Today, most Whitsun ceremonies, derived from the Saxon ‘Hirita Surnondseg’ customs, have little reference to the first Whitsun described in the Acts of the Apostles  (chapter 2), and many of them are pagan in origin, although the Church has given them Christian significance. The pagan cult of well worship and veneration of water spirits was one of the most difficult traditions to transform. To this day, in most European cultures, the custom of throwing coins into a fountain or ‘wishing well’ is still a common practice and a good way of charities gaining income. Wells and spas are still a feature of many towns in Britain, with England’s smallest city named after the several natural springs which surface there, near the Cathedral. Bath, a world heritage centre, has been an important Spa since Roman times, of course, and place-names like Royal Leamington Spa and Llandrindod Wells are part of the revival of water-treatments in Georgian times.

The most colourful ceremony which continues in contemporary celebrations at Ascentiontide and Whitsuntide is Well Dressing, very popular in the north Midlands, or Peak District. This has become an art form in its own right with origins in the Dark Ages and floral pictures up to ten feet (3m) in height are set up at springs and well-heads. Tissington, Buxton and Wirksworth in Derbyshire, are noted for the beauty of their well dressings. The scenes depicted are biblical, constructed entirely from natural materials, pebbles, flowers and petals, leaves, moss, and crystal rocks. At Tissington, after morning prayers, the clergy and choir process around five local wells, blessing each one. The Whitsun Ale was a sort of parish ‘carousel’ vaguely linked to the ‘Agapae’ or Love Feasts of the early Church when the rich ate with the poor and shared their food. The churchwardens arranged the event and provided the beer which was sold, with all profits going to the poor. The ‘Church Ale’ led to village benefit clubs of the nineteenth century which did more to benefit the hierarchical control of squire and parson, than they benefited the poor, and were replaced by ‘friendly’ and co-operative societies.   More than anything, Whitsun, now Spring Bank Holiday,  is the time for Morris-Dancers to emerge, and the popularity of this tradition, encouraged in the 1960s by the English Folk Dance Society, remains widespread throughout England and Wales. The ‘Morris’ is the English version of the ‘Morisca’ or ‘Moorish’ Dance which began as a ritualistic form of battle mime, brought back to England by the Crusaders. As in other European cultures throughout May, floral decorations like the ‘Kissing Bower’ are still made by children in some villages. These are two intertwined circular arches of wild flowers, which are carried from house to house. These customs were not always popular with clergymen, however, who would perhaps have been more positive about the cycles of mystery plays performed at Whitsuntide outside the Cathedrals at Chester, Wakefield and Coventry. These were presented as ‘pageants’ on moving stages which processed around the town, which meant that the biblical scene for a particular festival was presented several times by the chosen trade guild for that scene, as the audiences watched on at different points around the city. Freed from the direct control of the Church, they contained sometimes bawdy dramatic effects, or ‘slapstick’ humour, written into lively, colloquial scripts. It would be interesting to know what special effects they could produce both for the Ascension and Pentecost stories.   Which brings us back to where we came in. Children can understand the idea of the Holy Spirit as a conscience, or counsellor, as well as a comforter or helper, as in the picture and text below. And both children and adults can understand Paul’s teaching on the ‘fruits of the spirit’; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost may have been dramatic, but its continuing charisma is manifested in the ordinary, everyday lives of Christians who follow its promptings and reveal its power in the way they live out these values and qualities of Love Divine.

Shovuos (Pentecost – Jewish Festival)   2 comments

Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days. (Leviticus 23: 16) Judaism‘s  festival of weeks comes seven weeks, or fifty days (‘Pentecost’) after the Passover Festival. This festival was originally celebrated as the gathering of the barley harvest, seven weeks after the harvesting of the wheat crop. It was, therefore, the a thanksgiving festival and was first observed after the Hebrews had settled in Palestine as a farming community. It gained greater importance as the festival of ‘the Torah’, the Hebrew Law given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. According to the Bible story, the Hebrews entered the Sinai desert in the third month of their exodus from Egypt. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the festival acquired even greater significance when it was recognised as the day of confirmation, on which thirteen year-olds were confirmed in the faith through a special ceremony. Previously, only boys were allowed to go through this ‘Bar Mitzvah’, but now both boys and girls are confirmed at this age. The festival also has a Christian significance, for it was at Pentecost that Jesus’ disciples suddenly found the courage to go out and tell the whole world about their belief, so that the festival became ‘Whitsun’ in the Christian calendar, a popular day for baptisms and confirmations, with the weekend popular for white weddings!  I was baptised on Whit Sunday, forty years ago, fifteen years after being born at a Nottinghamshire Baptist manse on a Whit Monday! Shovuos is a summer festival and Jewish homes are decorated in green, while the food is largely composed of dairy dishes. A popular dish is ‘blintzes’, which is cheese rolled in dough. In Jewish schools children are taught the story of Ruth, which reminds them of their agricultural heritage and also turns their thoughts to David and Bethlehem, his home town. The story begins in a time of hardship and famine, when a farmer named Elimelech, together with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, decided to move to another country, Moab, to find better pastures there. Sadly, Emilelech died, leaving the two boys to look after their mother. In time, the boys married, the elder to a Moabite woman, Ruth. Naomi found happiness with her two daughters-in-law and her sons, and they prospered for a decade. Then, tragically, the two sons were killed in an accident and Naomi, now very lonely, decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth asked to go with her, with the words:

Cover of
Cover of The Story of Ruth

Wherever you go, I will go, Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
English: House of the People is a multi-purpose hall. Here, Bar Mitzvah boy called to the Torah עברית: בית העם הוא אולם רב תכליתי. כאן, נער בר מצוה עולה לתורה. באולם קיימת הפרדה בין הגברים לנשים., Original Image Name:בר מצוה בבית העם, Location:בית העם במושב צופית (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They went back to Bethlehem together, to find the situation very different to how it had been a decade previously. The famine was over and the harvests were good. However, the two women remained poor and at the barley harvest time Ruth went into the fields to ‘glean’ among the sheaves left by the reapers. The owner, Boaz, saw her, fell in love with her, and gave her six measures of barley to take home to her mother-in-law. They were married and their son, Obed, was Jesse’s father, who was father to David, hence the significance of the story to Christians, since Jesus was David’s descendant, born in his home town of Bethlehem. However, although the Christian festival of Whitsun is a popular time for baptisms and confirmations, like ‘Bar Mitzvah’ celebrations, the basis of the festival is the New Testament story of what happened to the apostles on the morning after the seventh sabbath.

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah
Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ‘Bar Mitzvah’ (boys) and ‘Bat Mitzvah‘ (girls) ceremonies mark the occasion when the young Jew reaches religious and legal maturity. There are celebrations both in the synagogue and at home. The young boy is taught to read the Torah scroll, and a great extended family party follows. The young person gives a speech in which s/he expresses their thanks to their parents for all their love and concern in bringing them up.

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