Whitsuntide, and a recipe for Gorse Ice-cream
Pentecost is another moveable feasts in the church calendar. The Feast of Pentecost is the fiftieth day (Easter + 49 days) and seventh Sunday, after Easter Sunday. It falls ten days after Ascension Day. Pentecost ‘Pentekostos’ is the Greek word for fiftieth, and the feast brings Eastertide to a close.
In Palestine there were two harvests. An early gathering of wheat or first fruits in May or June, and a later final harvest. The Hebrew name for Pentecost is Shavuot or the Feast of Weeks, when the Israelites celebrated The Lord bringing them from Egypt to the Promised Land.The Lord giving his Law (the Torah) to Moses on Mount Sinai has also become associated with the Feast of Weeks, although this may be contested by some (Exodus 23 v 14-17). The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival. A time when Israelite men travelled to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem. This background is helpful because it makes sense of the disciples being in Jerusalem (the pilgrimage) at the time of Pentecost and of the Christian adaptation of a festival celebrated by the Jews. The coming of the Holy Spirit (when the disciples were given the ability to speak in different languages) took place on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2 v 1-8). Pentecost is the Birthday of the Christian Church and fulfilled God’s promise (Acts 1 v8).
An old English term for Pentecost is Whitsun, Whit Sunday or White Sunday. This has various references: the white of the dove of the Holy Spirit, white garments worn at baptismal services and even a celebration of landowners giving milk (white) to the poor. The Apostles were said to be drunk on new wine, talking gibberish. The new found knowledge or wisdom of the Apostles has been attributed to the word wit (whit) – wisdom from the Holy Spirit - hence Whitsun. Mark Tully suggests that Pentecost could also be called Translation Sunday. I like this a lot. The day the Apostles translated God’s great works into different tongues. Pentecost is a moveable feast and it was a day that the Apostles moved between languages. Living on a Gaelic speaking Isle, I listen to a dispenser speaking to older patients in Gaelic. I often ask about a word and realise that its direct translation into English is not straightforward. Translation is not by the word but the meaning of a group of words. In Scotland, the Friday before Whitsunday, was known as Flitting Friday. A day when farm hands traditionally changed employment and leases expired. (Flit is Scots for removal). In the days before semesters, the summer term at my Alma mater, the University of St Andrews, was called Whitsunday (Martimas and Candlemas made up the Academic year ).
The rules of the Church of England with regard to Liturgical Colours are not mandatory and allow local use, but for Pentecost the altar may be dressed in red. In some churches Sunday school children made flaming red hats and congregation members wore red. Red symbolises the power or fire of the gift of the Holy Spirit – speaking in tongues. Interestingly Bach notes the importance of Eastertide in his composition of thirty-nine sacred cantatas for Easter to Pentecost. The cantatas are grouped: Easter and the five Sundays after Easter, Ascension, Exaudi (the Sunday after Ascension Day) , Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday. There are three for Whitsun: Whit Sunday, Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday.
From Victorian times until 1971, Whitsun was marked by a Bank Holiday on the Monday (Whit Monday). In 1972 the holiday was replaced with the current spring public holiday - May 31st. A move from a Christian festival to a secular holiday. Whit Tuesday seems to have fallen by the wayside but this, with the Sunday and Monday made up the three days of the Holy Trinity. School half terms appears to fall around Whitsun. My mother recalls banks of bluebells, as girls from St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire, walked to Derry Hill (on the Lansdowne Estate) for a Whit Monday picnic. The Whit Walks were sometimes referred to as Whits. ‘Walk properly shouted the Sunday School Superintendent’. In Scotland, where the summer term ends earlier, there isn’t a Bank Holiday to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost.
Older people remember being given new clothes for Whitsuntide. There were Sunday school processions, flowers and bands. Catholics celebrated on Whit Friday when again, children were clad in new attire and there were traditional walks and picnics. I read a lady’s an oral history remembering two new dresses: one for the Catholic and a second for the Protestant walks. Bring on Ecumenicalism. Oral history mentions weather banter between Catholics and Protestants, religon is not perfect but within the custom steeped processions was commensalism "My mother made all my Whit Walk dresses and those of my friends too. It seemed a strange ritual, as obviously money was short, yet we had our long dresses, gloves, shoes, socks and also a new "day" outfit. This was to be our new "Sunday Best". The clothes you wore to do your Sunday visiting.
On Whit Sunday the people of the parish met and with banners aloft, dressed in our finery, we held the hands of our friends or a basket of flowers and walked through the locallity no matter what the weather. People clapped, cameras clicked and we all felt either embarrased or the "bees knees". Mothers, fathers, grannies, granddads, brothers, sisters and cousins, we all walked to celebrate Whit Sunday. Somewhere along the lines was the service but I really don't know if that was before or after the walk.
There is record of cheese rolling in Birdlip, Gloucestershire and other quaint customs some of which overlapped with Ascension Day - e.g. the blessing of wells. Documented Whitsun celebrations, seem to be more prevalent in the North of England.
At Whitsun, Church Ales were held by parishes to raise money for the general need of the Parish church. There was feasting, dancing and music. There was also crowning of a Queen and King and much adorning of venues with flowers and foliage. There doesn’t appear to have been a title in the way that Lord of Misrule is attributed to winter feasts and my research suggests that Whitsun Kings and Queens may have been conflated with those of May Day. The bucolic scene lost favour with some worthies, but any ban would appear to have been local. 19th and 20th century Whitsun picnics with open air hymn singing, Sunday school walks, parades, bands and church outings are I suspect, festivities that evolved from the Church Ales. New clothes definitely seem to have been a thing too. Bring back Whitsuntide.
The celebration of Pentecost has cream and milk, gooseberries and cheesecakes associated with its Feast. Perhaps I should create a ‘white’ recipe synonymous with baptisms and doves. Meringues would tick the box. However, my thought is to include a foraged ingredient. Foraging is good for the soul as well as the stomach. Gorse Ice-cream is perhaps not lily white, but seasonal and thus fitting, for this moveable feast in the Church’s Liturgical Year.
Gorse Ice- Cream
Two handfuls of gorse flowers (well shaken)
450ml double cream
150g caster sugar
4 egg large yolks
Soak the gorse flowers in the milk overnight – to infuse. Refigerate.
Strain the milk through a sieve being sure to extract as much gorse infused milk as possible.
Pop the scented milk, cream and half of the sugar into a heavy based pan. Cook over a low heat to scald. Remove from the heat and leave to cool – 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a bowl whisk the remaining sugar with the egg yolks until creamy.
Slowly pour the gorse sweetened cream into the egg mixture, whisking as you add the cream.
Return the pan to a low heat and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens – coats the back of the spoon. Allow to cool and churn in an ice-cream machine.
If you don’t have an ice-cream machine, pop the mixture into a freezer-safe container, and freeze until slushy. Return the mixture to the bowl, beat well and return to the freezer. Repeat this process until you can’t see any ice crystals and then freeze until frozen. Allow this ice-cream to soften in a refrigerator before serving
There are more gorse recipes in my book The Forager’s Kitchen Handbook