This article is by Neil Rees, who prepares Nostalgia articles for the Amersham & Chesham edition of the Bucks Free Press. Neil writes:

Whitsun is one of the movable feasts in the Church calendar. This is because it depends on the date of Easter. In the Church calendar it falls on 7 Sundays or 50 days after Easter Sunday. In 2021 it fell on Sunday, May 23. The time was associated with many traditions, now mainly lost.


To understand the origin of Whitsun, we need to go to the story of Pentecost as told in the second chapter of the book of Acts in the Bible’s New Testament. Pentecost was actually the Greek term for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which is 50 days after Passover. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek for 50th gives us the word Pentecost. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem. Saint Peter stood up and preached, telling the story of Jesus to the crowds.

The crowds were local Jews, and those of the Diaspora. Thousands were baptised and after the festival, they returned to their homelands throughout the Middle East with their new Christian faith. This was effectively the start of the Early Church. Thus Pentecost has been seen as the birthday of the Christian Church, and was one of the four great church festivals along with Christmas, Easter and Harvest Festival.


Historically people would wear white robes on this Sunday. So in England it become known as White Sunday, which perhaps inevitably became called Whitsun. The day before Whitsun was Whitsun Eve, and the day after was Whit Monday. The week following was Whit Week and the whole period was called Whitsuntide. Whitsuntide was a popular holiday, largely because of the likelihood of good weather. Good weather at Whitsun was supposed to promise a good harvest. It was at Whitsun that the great mediaeval chivalrous tournaments were held. In the legends of King Arthur it was at Whitsun when he held his most splendid court.

Whitsun ales and Morris dancing

In many parishes Whitsun ales were brewed, and a large barn might used for entertainments and dancing, such as morris dancing. Whitsun morris dancing is mentioned by Shakespeare in his play Henry V. Even today many morris dancers wear white, because they are the white clothes of Whitsun. The merriments of Whitsun were not popular with the Puritan government under Oliver Cromwell, which suppressed them. With the restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II, many of them were allowed again.

Whitsun Farthings

In mediaeval times there was an annual farthing tax on households which had a chimney, which was paid towards the upkeep of the local cathedral. The word farthing comes from fourthling, and it was a quarter of a penny. On Whit Monday folk walked in a procession to the local cathedral, or if that was far away, to the main church in the vicinity, and they paid what was known as the Whitsun Farthing. After the Reformation the Church of England continued the tradition for general church funds for the upkeep of church buildings. For example in 1939 Marlow raised 1,616 farthings, and St John’s church in High Wycombe raised 336 farthings towards the Oxford Diocesan Fund. This ancient tradition continued in some parts of Bucks such as Amersham and Chesham until 1960. From 1961 the farthing was no longer legal tender and the tradition died with it.

Whit Monday Bank Holiday

Bank Holidays were introduced into the United Kingdom by the Bank Holiday Act of 1871, Whit Monday was one of the first British Bank Holidays, forming what was known as Whit Weekend. For children though, Whit Week was a week off school, and is the origin of what is now the half-term holiday. With brighter weather coming people would buy a new frock, hat and shoes for Whitsun, and stores would have new Whitsun fashion ranges. Whit Monday became a day for fairs and events and outings. Amersham held a Whitsun Fair each Whit Monday when farmers and dealers took over the High Street and Whielden Street to sell cattle and sheep. The local paper reported in 1910 that the fair “is becoming to be looked upon very much as a nuisance”. The tradition died out when the Great War came. After the Second World War annual Whit Monday fetes were held in many places such as at Castlefield, Loudwater, Booker Common, and Holmer Green.

Whitsun Excursions

Many non-conformist churches held their Sunday School Anniversary on Whitsunday, when they would be told the story of Pentecost. This would be followed by a walk called a Whit Walk, or a Sunday School excursion on Whit Monday to places like Wycombe Rye, West Wycombe or Burnham Beeches.

Railway companies, and later bus and coach companies, offered special Whitsun day excursions to London or places like Eastbourne. Trains from Bucks would be full of people on special one-day excursion tickets to London, and the trains would return with Londoners wanting to have a day out in the Chilterns, or visit their relations in the country. Day trips to London were available by bus from the London Transport bus garage at the bottom of Marlow Hill.

Marlow was another popular destination especially for people from Wycombe and Maidenhead, and the putting and bowling greens and tennis courts of Higginson Park, Marlow would be full. There were also special boat trips from Marlow to Windsor.

Spring Bank Holiday Monday

Many churches still have special services on Pentecost Sunday. However in 1971, the British government reviewed the 1871 Bank Holiday Act on its 100th anniversary. It was then decided to fix Whit Monday Bank Holiday as the last Monday in May. Whit Monday became Late May or Spring Bank Holiday, which falls on Whit Monday some years, but not every year.