Pentecost - Traditions and Customs
When it comes to church holidays, Christmas and Easter get all the attention, but what about Pentecost? Most Christians have heard the term, but some may be hard pressed to explain the significance of the day.
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which the liturgical churches commemorate the sending of the Holy Spirit on the early church, as described in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles. The name Pentecost means the 50th day; it falls 50 days after Easter Sunday when Christ rose from the dead.
Churches and vestments are often decorated with red, to represent the fire of the spirit in the church, recalling the following verses of Scripture.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. -Acts 2:1-4
The manner in which the day of Pentecost is observed varies considerably. In the Eastern church, Pentecost is second only to Easter in its holiness, and the day is prepared for by a long service of kneeling and prostrations. In Lutheran Germany this was a traditional time for enthusiastic evangelistic preaching. In France it was the custom to play loud horns in church on Pentecost to announce the great day.
Since medieval times in rural England there has developed the custom of cheese rolling at Pentecost. In Gloucester, after evening prayers, it is the custom to hurl bread and cheese off the local castle walls, presumably because in medieval times, this was an offering of the rich to the poor, but the custom continues.
Although red is the common color for celebrating Pentecost, in England they have a different tradition. There, Pentecost is called Whitsunday, for "White Sunday." By venerable tradition there, the sacred color for Pentecost is white, because in medieval times the English church used a different pattern for the annual liturgical colors of vestments. Whitsun was also a common day for baptisms, for which the liturgical color was white.
The custom also developed for young women to wear new white dresses on Whitsunday, which also marked the warmer weather that comes in late spring in Britain. Officially this was a devotion by single women to share in the white colors in the church. But more commonly, the young ladies in white could send a springtime message to the young men that they were still available for courtship.
In modern times, many churches encourage people to wear red clothes on Pentecost Sunday, matching the color of church paraments. If you have red in your closet, wear it to church this week as we celebrate the birthday of the Christian church!
Prayer for Today
Holy Spirit, come to us; kindle in us the fire of your love! Come, O Holy Spirit, come!