Today is the 1st Sunday of Advent in the liturgical calendar of the Western Christian churches. It is also the first day of the new liturgical year. This afternoon, I’ll put the Christmas tablecloth on the table, with the advent candles in the middle of it. I’ll also put up the Jesse Tree, to which I’ll add an ornament a day until Christmas Day.
I love these markers of the annual cycle of seasons, feasts, celebrations, and memorials. They speak to something in the human soul. All cultures have their own markers–even the modern business world marks the end of the tax year and annual report publishing day, and commerce seizes gleefully on traditional festivals as a reason for that very up-t0-date marker: the sale.
In earlier times, the markers were mostly linked to the rhythms of the season and the demands of a society that lived on the proceeds of agriculture. We tend to think of people in earlier times as working day-in, day-out, without 40-hour-a-week legislation to protect their rights to leisure. But the rhythms of the season and, in Christian countries, the feasts of the Church meant perhaps more leisure than any of today’s workers could imagine. Harvard economist Juliett Shor claims that medieval peasants worked as little as six hours a day and might get up to 200 days a year off.
Whatever the arguments about the detail of those claims, 700 years ago, a Church feast day meant no work beyond what was needed to keep animals fed and watered. Every Sunday was a feast day, and–depending on the particular year and the local bishop–anything from another 50 to another 150 might be added into the mix.
My novels, set in England’s late Georgian era, fall in a time where many people had been driven from the land. But for those who remained, some of the old ways endured. In Farewell to Kindness, the action of a third of the novel happens before the backdrop of Whitsunweek (also known as Whitsuntide).
Apart from walks, fairs, picnics, horse races and other activities, the week was known for the brewing of the Whitsunale. This was a church fundraising activity–the church wardens would take subscriptions, create a brew, and sell or distribute it during the week of Whitsuntide. It has a certain appeal. It would certainly be a change from cake stalls and sausage sizzles!
Whitsunweek was the week following the Feast of Pentecost (WhitSunday), and seems to have been the only week-long medieval holiday to survive into early modern times. It usually fell after sheep shearing and before harvest, and it was a week of village festivities and celebrations.
I’ve already posted about the mob football game in my novel. In the following excerpt, my hero is visiting my heroine, who is his tenant. Will is his land steward.
Anne had nothing to add, except to comment that the chimney was the most urgent of the needed repairs.
“Very good.” The Earl smiled. “I’ll get someone onto that immediately.”
“After Whitsuntide,” Will corrected. “I doubt we’ll get anyone here before that.”
The Earl nodded acceptance. “I’ve been hearing about the Whitsuntide festival. You are on the committee, are you not?”
Anne demurred. “Not for all the festivities. I am part of a small sub-committee of the Ladies Altar Society that is organising the fête for Tuesday.”
“I remember the fête from when I was a child. Stalls, Morris Dancing, the Whitsun Ale. My cousin Susan and I won the blindfold wheelbarrow race two years in a row.”
“We’re to have all of that, my Lord. And archery, and skittles, and a tug-of-war, and other tests of skill or strength. The village band will play for dancing. The Whitsun Ale, of course. And the Squire is organising a fireworks display.”
“My cousin’s children will love it. I expect them one day this week.”
Anne nodded. “Mrs Cunningham’s grandchildren. She and her sister, Lady Redwood, are so looking forward to seeing them.”
“So what else might they enjoy next week?”
“There’s to be football on Monday, and cricket on Wednesday,” Mr Baxter contributed, “and horse racing and coursing on Friday.”
“That makes for a busy time! Will any work be done, do you think?”
“Very little!” Mr Baxter acknowledged. “But with the shearing over and the haying still to begin, this week is a welcome holiday.”
“Yes, and both village and farm will work all the better for a brief time of play,” Anne agreed.
“Is anything planned for Thursday?” the Earl asked.
Anne beamed. “Yes, indeed. There’s a singing competition in Chipping Niddwick, at their Whitsun fête. We expect our psalm singers to win!”
May you all have a peaceful and productive Advent, and a Happy New Year.