Monday, 28 May 2012


This week is "Whitsuntide". Today is Whit Monday, though in the UK this may easily have passed you by. It always used to be a public holiday but in recent years the Spring Bank Holiday, as it's now known, has not co-incided with Whitsun and the old holiday is almost forgotten and certainly rather neglected.

It was once celebrated in a number of different ways in various parts of the country, often involving a deal of singing and dancing - both of which often proved to be thirsty work! In case you feel moved to song, here are the words to "The Whitsuntide Carol"

Now Whitsuntide is come you very well do know,
Come serve the Lord we must before we do go.
Come serve him truly with all your might and heart
And then from heaven your soul shall never depart.

How do you know how long we have to live?
For when we die oh then what would we give?
For being sure of having our resting place
When we have run our sinful wretched race.

Down in those gardens where flowers grow in ranks,
Down on your knees and to the Lord give thanks.
Down on your knees and pray both night and day,
Pray unto the Lord that He will lead the way.

Come all those little children all in the streets we meet
All in their pastimes so even and complete
It's how you may hear them lie, boast, curse and swear
Before that they do know one word of any prayer.

Now we have brought you all this royal branch of oak,
God bless our Queen Victoria and all the royal folk
God bless our Queen and all this world beside
That the Lord may bless you all this merry Whitsuntide.

The song was collected many years ago from one Thomas Coningsby of Whaddon, which is just a couple of miles from where I live. If you want to hear the tune, it was recorded by Peter Bellamy's Young Tradition back in the 1960s in typical uncompromising style. This link will take you there

Whaddon Church 

It is reported that Mr Coningsby recalled that on Whit Monday the men of the village went to the wood to cut oak boughs which they brought back to the village and laid on the doorsteps. They then went around the village as a group singing the carol. 

The words of the carol have a very Victorian feel to them. Quite apart from the reference to Victoria herself, the high moral tone is more typical of the 19th century than older times. My suspicion is that it's been got at by some Victorian clergyman, possibly the vicar of Whaddon. Many of the old songs were collected by rural vicars; they were educated men, of course, who had contact with people from all walks of life, they often had a musical education and also had time to undertake the task.

Unfortunately, in the spirit of the age, they often thought they could 'improve' the old songs, so words were tidied up, all bawdy references were removed and they tunes were sometimes changed from the old modal melodies to something which sounded better to their ears. But without their efforts many songs would have been lost forever.

The old tradition was revived recently in Whaddon village, complete with Morris dancers, though I saw no evidence on my visit to suggest that it was going to take place this Whitsuntide. Lets hope that I'm wrong!

Take care. 


  1. What does "Whitsuntide" mean? We have Victoria Day in Canada on May 24th(or the closest Monday), when we are supposed to be celebrating the Queen's birthday. It is our unofficial start to summer, the weekend when people open their cottages and start having BBQs. Also,the traditional time to plant annuals and the

    1. Same as Pentecost, Jenny, it's just an old name deriving from White Sunday. Used to be a holiday week in UK too and many elements of the traditions associated with Whitsun seem to be pagan survivals from the old Beltane festival which marked the beginning of summer.

  2. The term has been supplanted by Pentecost in this country, and the holiday is Memorial Day. Not much left of Whitsunday here.

  3. Sadly Whitsuntide seems to have gone these days John - these old religious festivals and the traditions associated with them were still around when I was a child.

  4. I remember celebrating Whitsunday and singing hymns associated with Whitsuntide (When God of old came down from heaven to Winchester Old) but now there is no mention of the festival, even on church calendars. However, we do have Pentecost, which seems to have taken its place, and on my blog yesterday I mentioned watching the wonderful theatre of the Pentecost celebration in the Washington National Cathedral.

  5. Sandy from Salisbury28 May 2012 at 18:02

    Thanks for this information, there must be a whole generation growing up who have no idea what "Whitsuntide" represents or means.
    I live reasonably near to Grovely Wood in Wiltshire, they have their special "Oak Apple Day" celebrations tomorrow, this always happens near to Whitsuntide.

    1. Nice to hear from you, Sandy. And good to hear that Oak apple day is still going strong.

  6. I remember that the small village school in Derbyshire I attended always used to have a Whitsuntide outing. Every year we children used to be picked up in a bus (the same one that used to take us to the nearby swimming baths every week)clutching our bottles of pop and egg or tinned salmon sandwiches in brown paper bags and taken to the Tissington Well Dressings. My mother always used to say that it was the day it suddenly became warmer and spring turned into summer:)

  7. First time heard a carol (or at least a song refered to as a carol) for a time of the year other than Christmas. Song change from one person to the other so I'm not in the least surprised to read of possible "improvements" in Victorian times.Better kept in changed form than lost altogether.

  8. So, do your archives contain a version of this song when it had bawdier words? I am a heathen with low morals and would enjoy that version.

    Morris Dancers? I once happened upon a festival in Broadway on the opposite side of England, with Morris Dancers dancing in the square. It was a memorable sight.

    1. No other versions are known to exist, Jack. May have a post about Morris dancers, or even Molly Dancers, in the next few weeks.

  9. When I was young Whitsuntide meant a new outfit and the Whit Walks. Not being a church going family I never took part in the Walks but we have a lovely photo of my MIL aged about 5 (around 1919/20) dressed in her pretty Whit outfit with a basket of flowers. It's very much a Northern tradition I think, certainly it was a major event in the Lancashire mill towns.

  10. So many traditions are changing. Maybe that has always happened and perhaps I'm just getting older so it doesn't feel like it's my generation that's pushing for the change. It's good to hear that Morris dancing is still practiced now and then.

  11. Hi John, I am new to your colorful, delightful blog. Saw you on Mrs. B. I really enjoyed your story on the Whitsuntide Holiday and the song Whitsuntide Carol. I have been tracing my England ancestors on and have a lot of ancestors from Cambridgeshire, dating back to the 6th century medieval England. There were a lot of castles they lived in. Look forward to seeing your blog and your photos. Love your green background and the little butterfly on your blog header.
    Kindest regards,
    Tucson, Arizona

  12. I loved hearing about the old holiday and much history is gone and forgotten now, it is these little snippets of history that is so interesting not the textbook stuff. Really nice blog.

  13. It is interesting how so many festivals of an older tradition became merged with a church holiday. Few of these old observances made it to New England---perhaps the Puritan conscience frowned upon corporate celebrations [?] I grew up within the fairly sober constraints of New England Congregationalism--Christmas and Easter were made much of with a nod to the American Thanksgiving--the older holidays must have been musch aniticipated.

  14. Interesting, John. I had no idea what Whitsuntide meant or when it was.

  15. What lovely stories with the old smithies and Whitsunday customs. Much appreciated.


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