What is Pentecost and why do we celebrate it?

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Pentecost Sunday is a significant event in the Christian calendar each year. It's a day which goes back to the Early Church, and transcends denominational boundaries.

Pentecost in the calendar

Pentecost is one of movable feasts in the Church calendar. This is because it depends on when Easter falls. In the Church calendar it falls fifty days or seven Sundays after Easter Sunday. It can therefore fall on a different Sunday in May or June each year.

Jewish origins

Pentecost is actually the Greek term used for the Jewish holiday 'Shavuot'. Using the Jewish calendar, Passover is followed by Shavuot, which was called the Feast of Weeks. In the Holy Land, it was the Harvest Festival for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. The Feast of Weeks was seven weeks.

The Hebrew words for seven and week are related, so it was a week of weeks, or 49 days. The Sabbath following a week of weeks is the fiftieth day, as explained in Leviticus 23:15-16. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Greek word for fiftieth gave us the word Pentecost.

Pentecost in Acts

In the first two chapters of Acts, we read that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem. Saint Peter stood up and preached telling the story of Jesus to the crowds. That Harvest Festival was the first fruits of the great harvest of souls.

According to Acts 2:41 about 3,000 people joined the Church. These people were local Jews, Jews of the Diaspora, and some Gentile converts to Judaism. According to the list in Acts 2:9-11 the people returned to their homes in what is today Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.

A few chapters later in Acts 8:27, we also read of the man who returned to Ethiopia. These places are the very geographical areas where the Early Church was strongest in the first centuries AD.

Paul and Pentecost

Unlike the celebration of Christmas, which is not recorded in the New Testament, Pentecost seems to have been very important to Saint Paul. In Acts 20:16, we read that Paul was anxious to attend Pentecost in Jerusalem, and 1 Corinthians 16:8, we read that he remained in Ephesus so that he could mark Pentecost. It may thus be the oldest Christian festival.


In the British tradition, Pentecost was traditionally known in English as 'Whitsun', short for Whitsunday (or 'Sulgwyn' in Welsh). Its use is first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1067, as 'hwitan sunnan daeg'. This most likely comes from the term White Sunday, because historically people wore white gowns on Pentecost, and in some countries they still do.

Whitsun traditions

The time around Whitsun was called Whitsuntide. In medieval times it was one of the three festival weeks, along with Christmas and Easter, when workers had a week's holiday from work, and so it became associated with many festivities. It was considered the start of the summer, and traditionally people bought or made new clothes for Whitsun. Whitsun is mentioned in Shakespeare's Henry V where it is linked with Morris dancing.

The day after Whitsun was Whit Monday. Most people did not work that day, so in many towns it was a day to hold fairs. On Whit Monday it was also the custom that Sunday schools went on parades carrying banners through the towns and villages and finished with a big party. It was a time when children from churches of different traditions would come together.

A modern version of ancient Whitsun celebration traditions happens in Sussex, in southern England, when thousands converge for the Big Church Festival.

Bank holidays

Bank holidays were introduced into the UK by the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, and Whit Monday was one of the first bank holidays. Railway companies, and later bus and coach companies, offered special Whitsun day excursions. In 1971, the British government reviewed the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, 100 years after it was introduced and it was decided to fix the bank holiday as the last Monday in May.

Whit Monday became what is now the late May or spring bank holiday. As it became less associated with Whitsun many of the traditions associated with Pentecost dropped away. Nevertheless, it still falls on Whit Monday some years.

The Pentecostal movement

In 1904, when the Welsh Revival occurred, spiritual phenomena happened which reminded people of the first Pentecost, and it gave rise to what became known as the Pentecostal movement. This is now a worldwide form of Christianity. When pentecostalism occurs within mainstream denominations it is usually called the charismatic movement.

Pentecost today

In evangelical and charismatic churches, where there is less emphasis on the liturgical calendar, yet a great emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, Pentecost has been increasingly promoted and adopted as a great celebration. Pentecost transcends the denominational lines, and allows Christians to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church. Some churches like to think of it as the birthday of the Church.


Neil Rees is a publishing consultant, historian, freelance writer and speaker. He is also involved in youth work at his local village church, and guest preaching in churches of different denominations.