WHEN WHITSUN MEANT FEASTING, FIGHTING, FAIRS AND CHURCH ALE.
HOW many of us still refer to the forthcoming Bank Holiday as Whitsun? Given it was moved in 1971 to the last Monday in May, you'd think we'd be used to it by now!
Since then, it's been called the Spring Bank Holiday, Whit Sunday in the Church calendar being the seventh Sunday after Easter - or June 9 this year.
Traditionally, Whitsun was the church festival of Pentecost, celebrating the Holy Ghost filling Christ's Apostles with knowledge. As clergy wear white robes at Whitsun, the name may stem from the Saxon words 'Hwitan Sunnandaey" - or White Sunday.
Customarily, homes, churches and other buildings were decorated with spring blossoms and greenery. In 1694, the register for St Leonard's Church in Bilston records two shillings being paid "to Anne Knowles for cleaning and dressing ye chappell at Whitsuntide".
In early times, Whitsuntide was given over to feasting, fairs, games and sporting competitions. Churches were community hubs where traditional feasts called Whitsun Ales were held.
Most churches brewed their own ale, selling it to raise money for repairs to church buildings, and to raise alms for the poor. To ensure the church had the monopoly on selling alcohol during church ales, pubs and taverns in the parish were forced to shut, or risk fines.
In large parishes, bigger premises were often used, attracting more punters with the promise of dancing to hired musicians. Morris dances were performed and local worthies chosen to act as Lord and Lady of the Ale. In earlier times, a man dressed in greenery, his face concealed by a mask made from bark, presided over the feast. The pagan Green Man symbolised new life and fertility, and carvings of this mysterious figure can be seen in many old churches.
Our early ancestors knew him as Cernunnos - a Celtic wild man of the woods, perhaps even Robin Hood.
In the churchyard, parishioners often built 'Robin Hood's Bower', from where the men would emerge for archery competitions.
Men and boys made their way from the bower to the archery butts, often housed in churchyards, to compete for a silver arrow. These competitions were strongly encouraged by order of the Tudor monarchs.
Despite the festive air, archery practice was a legal duty as the state required males of a specified age to keep their bowmanship up to the mark.
Fortified with ale, our forebears also enjoyed skittles, cudgel fighting, singing and dancing.
In cathedral cities like Coventry and Lichfield, the influential guilds performed Mystery Plays - each guild vying to outdo the others to put on the most spectacular show.
The plays were performed on stages mounted on wheels, trundled round major areas of the city, attracting crowds. The dramas, based on biblical stories, were far from dry - liberally peppered with bawdy jokes and satirical snipes at local bigwigs - much to the delight of audiences.
Until Bank Holidays were introduced in the 1870s, religious festivals were the only holidays people had from work. No wonder they liked to let their hair down. By the 18th century, as the nation became more industrialised, the old religious festivals grew more secular, focusing almost entirely on sports and games.
The gentry favoured horse racing and gambling, while "lesser folk" enjoyed more riotous fun, like hurling tarry fire wheels down hillsides. The tradition, said to stem from the ancient practice of rolling burning "sun wheels" downhill, survives in the Cotswold custom of rolling huge cheeses.
The oldest athletics meeting to take place in Britain is still held today, near Chipping Camden.
Going back to at least the early 16th century, "Robert Dover's Olympick Games" was an eclectic mix of rough and tumble old sports and games - "men playing at cudgels, wrestling, leaping, pitching the bar, throwing the iron hammer, handling the pike, leaping over the heads of men kneeling, standing upon their hands etc ..."
Dover's Olympicks was revived in 1951, with the addition of costumed characters and amusements, while keeping the old sports alive - most notably shin-kicking - a kind of extra violent wrestling!
During the 18th century, publicans, long banned from serving their ales during the old Church Ales, got in on the act. They were now able to organise Whitsuntide sports and games, enticing more customers with prizes of cash, food and alcohol.
By mid-century, festivities were characterised by drinking, fighting and blood sports, as the events grew in size. Before long, the establishment felt the need to curb working class drinking and leisure pursuits. Gradually, the old Whitsun wakes and ales were sanitised, or suppressed.
In many industrial areas, they were replaced by Sunday School Parades and Club Walks. Black Country folk kept the holiday spirit alive with race meetings, family get togethers, and outings. The boisterous Church Ales gave way to more sober affairs like Club Feasts.
Long before the Welfare State emerged, people paid small amounts into Friendly Societies or Sick Clubs. These basic insurance schemes paid out money to breadwinners who fell sick and were unable to work.
Any surplus cash went towards Whitsun festivities. But, by now, the feasts were more of the tea and bun variety than the fairground atmosphere of the old "Ales".
By the time Whit Monday had become a Bank Holiday, people were venturing further afield on day trips. One very popular Whitsun destination was the old Stewponey and Foley Arms at Stourton, near Kinver. From mid-19th century, the pub was known for its Whitsun Fair, drawing crowds from across the West Midlands.
The old pub was demolished in 1935, and replaced by its last incarnation, complete with a lido, then all the rage. Lidos were the height of fashion during the 1930s, so even more visitors trekked from Birmingham and the Black Country to spend the Whitsun Holiday at the pool.
And, as Stourton offered a rural escape, camping in the vicinity grew increasingly popular, especially for those with kids on half term.
Whitsun Parades and Club Walks gave people the chance to show off new clothes. At this time of year, it was traditional for people to buy new items of clothing, even if it was just a ribbon or pocket handkerchief.
The Whitsun Parades generally meant hard-pressed parents often overstretched their budgets, kitting out daughters in starched, white frocks and pinnies - and sons in their Sunday best, and new boots.
But, when times were hard, the parade, club walks and even the Morris dancers were hit. The 1840s were lean and troubled years, especially in the Black Country, as old metal trades, like nailmaking, suffered.
In Roy Palmer's 'Folklore of the Black Country', the author cites 1843 as a particularly bad year for Oldbury.
There were "no clubs walking to church, accompanied with bands of music, flags and banners streaming; no jolly pageant... no feasting at the club houses... No, the club men cannot afford to dine together."
During the mid-19th century, Black Country nailers went on strike. In times of hardship like these, strikers often turned to dancing out as Morris dancers to raise much-needed cash.
Usually it was groups of men who danced out for money. But, in 1856, as Roy Palmer relates, female strikers from Lye turned to Morris dancing for cash.
Times must have been hard, indeed, as during their last appearance, the girls were "too poor to employ a fiddler, a youth whistled the Morris dance tune, and they kept time in striking their staves together."
When the economic situation recovered, Dudley began holding a three-day Whitsun Fair at the Castle. For a penny a ticket, thousands came to enjoy the fun - the fair lasting until the First World War finally put an end to it, and to many other old traditions.
Cheese rolling, shin kicking and torchlight parades in the Cotswolds date back to Whitsun. Right, church brewing, the traditional Cotswolds Games and a carving of the Green Man
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|Publication:||Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)|
|Date:||May 26, 2019|
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