Sunday, August 19, 2012

Whitsunday

Last Sunday, I was sitting in a church in Vista, California. My sisters and I were all down at that end of the state celebrating my aunt's birthday with her, and this was part of the weekend. Someone  happened to notice that the order of service pamphlet we'd been given said it was the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, and wanted to know what Pentecost was. My aunt would have known this at one point, but her  memory is in decline, and I did learn this at some point in my past, but I had forgotten as well. I believe it is the day when the Holy Spirit is supposed to have descended upon the faithful, and I always think of the Charles Williams' title in this regard, The Descent of the Dove, but that's about it. The pente is obviously some aspect of five, but whether five days, five weeks, or fifty, I don't know.

Anyway, except for my aunt, none of us are regular churchgoers, and as it won't come up much in daily life again, I was going to give this particular bit of ignorance a pass. Once we get going on all the things I don't know about Christian doctrine, we will never stop, and I kind of figure that all the people who really want to know this stuff already do, and those who don't, well, don't.

But in the odd way that things converge, it turns out that Whitsunday, a word that was bobbing around in my brain in my last post on 'whit,' is actually just another word for Pentecost. I may be slow, but I can take a hint, so here we go.

***

All right. A Jewish festival before it was a Christian one. You knew that, right? I thought it was correlated with Easter, but it actually refers to the fiftieth day after Passover. 'Pentecost' comes from the Greek pentekoste hemera, meaning 'fiftieth day', and though I had been thinking of the Koine Greek of the early Christian New Testament, it was actually the Hellenized Greek Jews who came up with the term. In Hebrew, Pentecost is Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the end of a period after Pesach, or Passover. It is both an ancient harvest festival and the day designated by Jewish tradition as the day the Torah was given to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai.



You can see that, as with many holidays, there is a bit of an overlay of one tradition upon an older one, so it may be no surprise that the fledgling Christian faith might seek to distinguish this day as its own in some way as well. For Christians, Pentecost is celebrated as the day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles during Shavuot and filled them with the ability to preach their faith in the resurrection of Christ. The tradition has it that they were miraculously able to speak in the languages of all the people they met that day. The speaking in tongues of Pentecostal Christians comes from this tradition.

Whitsunday is a British name for the Christian holiday rather than the Jewish one. It pretty clearly means White Sunday, though it is not entirely certain why white is part of it all. A pretty good chance is that it is connected to the idea of purity, and I've read that it was when, after a period of penance following Easter, sinners were able to return to the fold, but also that Whitsunday is the day when the baptized undergo therites of Confirmation in their faith, and white is the color of the new initiate.

There is also the possibility that Whitsunday is itself an overlaying of one tradition on another, and that there may have been a pagan British celebration of the coming of summer, in which young women dressed in white to invoke a "white, clear summer sun". This last I gleaned from an Anatoly Liberman post, in which Whitsunday comes up in article about Etymology as a Battlefield, in which he tells us firmly that Whitsunday has nothing to do with wit. Nor is it etymologically related to the German Pfingsten, though they mean the same thing.

This last I might have suspected even without a noted etymologist's help...


British pagans celebrating the,uh, Autumn Equinox, but you see my point.


16 comments:

  1. You know what I'm at the end of from these last two posts of yours, don't you?

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  2. Yep. I knew about Shavuot, but the rest of it had my head spinning.

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  3. I am very curious, though I don't know how I'd find the answer, how many people know about the overlap of all these traditions. I'm sure there are some good Pentecostalists out there who could tell you about Shavuot, for instance, but I bet they mostly think of it as a superceded celebration rather than a living tradition.

    As for the orignal whit, the thing that interests me most is that whit seems to have mostly been spelled 'hwit' first, and then somehow become transcribed.

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  4. I knew about the wh/hw reversal in other English words, so that part didn't shock me. Authors will occasionally poke fun at the pronunciation of what as hwhat, usually to highlight the speaker's poshness. I'm guessing that the phonetic and orthographic changes are related.

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  5. I loved learning of the layering of traditions here. I always connect Pentecost with the tongues of fire...and the mutual understanding of languages (as tongues).

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  6. Peter, I suppose the sad part is that 'wit' doesn't really come into it much here. Not a whit, in fact.

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  7. Kathleen, thanks for making that connection between tongues of fire and the many-tongued multi-voiced ways of language. I hadn't thought of it before.

    Takes a poet, I guess...

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  8. Which reminds me that I should not try to make not just jots but also tittles a part of my life.

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  9. Maybe. But more is usually better.

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  10. This old post of mine pokes fun at the –hw pronunciation.
    ======================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

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  11. Or rather, a passiage I quote in the post does the poking.

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  12. I salute Mr. Pratchett for his sendup.

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  13. And I just realised you explained it all above...get rid of my comment hahaha

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  14. Nah--it was an entirely separate post...

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