Today is Whit Monday in Britain and the Commonwealth and Pentecost Monday in other parts of the world. It is a civic rather than a church festival. The Monday after Pentecost is a holiday in Austria, Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Catalonia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominica, France, Germany, Greece, Grenada, Hungary, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montserrat, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Switzerland, Togo and Ukraine. In France, it became a work day for many workers from 2005 to 2007. This was to raise extra funds following the government’s lack of preparation for a summertime heat wave, which led to a shortage of proper health care for the elderly. It continues now to be a public holiday in France.
In Liechtenstein, Whit Monday is an extremely popular holiday akin to Christmas in other countries. Until 1973, Whit Monday was a public holiday in Ireland (also called a bank holiday). It was a bank holiday in the United Kingdom until 1967. It was formally replaced by the fixed Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May in 1971. It was also a public holiday in various former British colonies, especially in the Pacific. It remains a public holiday in some of the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean. In Sweden, Whit Monday was a public holiday until 2004 when it was replaced by the National Day of Sweden.
Nowadays countries generally dislike having public holidays that are pegged to the date of Easter and, therefore, swing about the calendar so much. Whit Monday can fall anywhere from early May to mid-June. It’s rather early this year and that means that the weather will be unpredictable in Britain. The newer Spring Bank Holiday makes things a little more fixed and predictable, but the weather is still anyone’s guess.
Whit Monday, though tied to religious festivals, is not especially religious in itself in most parts of the world. In some Germanic Catholic regions it is, but for most people and cultures it’s just an excuse for a holiday. I’m up for that. A random day off work never hurts, especially if it extends the weekend. In England, Whit Monday used to be a day off that could be used for picnics, political rallies, outings and so forth much as Spring Bank Holiday is now. But for me the most important aspect of the day is that it used to be a chance for morris dancers to begin their dance season.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wrote the definitive history of morris dancing, in large part to dispel so much rubbish talked about its history. So many people want to see it as a “survival” of ancient pre-Christian ritual because they have been drawn in by ludicrous 19th century speculations about its history based on one or two dubious sources. Morris dancing in England cannot be traced further back than the 15th century and the references from that time are sparse and unhelpful. Things get better in the 16th century, but it is the 17th through 19th centuries when the picture gets clearer. When you actually collect together ALL the extant records, as I did over a 30-year period, it is perfectly clear that morris dancing was first a royal entertainment, then got adopted by churches as part of their annual festivities, then got banned during the Reformation, and finally re-emerged during the Restoration, and later, as a rural pastime for fun and to make money.
People want to peg morris dancing to May Day because they want to believe that it is an old pagan ritual in new guise, but the history shows that it was more common to dance on Whit Monday, not because it was a religious holiday, but because it was a day off for fun. As morris dancing died out at the end of the 19th century, dancing on Whit Monday withered also. But it did survive in the town of Bampton in Oxfordshire, and continues to this day, although shifted to Bank Holiday Monday nowadays.
Festivities in Bampton have grown significantly over the years, but the general course of the day remains the same. The Bampton dancers tour the town during the day, stopping at carefully scheduled sites. Fixed scheduling is necessary because in the 1960s the dancers fissioned into two competing teams who did not want to collide, but both wanted to share the day. Then they were known by the family names of their respective leaders (Woodley and Shergold), and each group had their followers. I was in the Shergold camp. Now there are THREE teams !!!
After the daytime dancing, teams from various parts of the country are invited to dance. I danced there with Oxford University Morris Men in the early 1970s. Once in a while I pop back for a visit, but it is not often, and I have not been there since the 1990s. The cast of characters does not change much. I can’t go this year, but if I attend some time in the future I’m bound to run into old friends. That’s the value of classic calendar customs. Forget the ancient, pagan nonsense. Whit Monday is a day off to have fun, and it was 200 years ago as well.
Whit Monday is not associated with particular foods. The word Whit is an abbreviation of Whitsun, from Whitsunday and ultimately White Sunday. The general conjecture is that Whitsunday was so called because baptismal candidates and new communicants wore white, and Pentecost has historically been associated with baptism and first communion. Some people, therefore, like to prepare white foods in celebration. Well, I mentioned red foods yesterday for Pentecost, so white foods would be all right, although hardly thrilling.
We’re talking about rice, pasta, cauliflower, coconut, and so forth. Many foods that are called “white,” such as beans, are not really white, and white foods in general can be bland. Wherever they are staples they are dressed up with a sauce or condiment. You’re not going to find me eating tofu by itself. Generally speaking, adding “white” to any food turns me off: white bread, white cake, white pepper, white sauce. Ugh. White food even looks unappetizing to me. If you want to make a white meal to celebrate, go ahead, but don’t invite me.
Though it goes against the grain, here’s a recipe for white cake from Bolivia. It is salvaged for me by the generous addition of lemon. Vanilla would be all right too. “Vanilla” is often treated as a synonym for “bland” which is unfair. This comes about because typical commercial vanilla ice-creams are white and tasteless. True vanilla is not white and is not bland.
Bolivian White Cake
1 cup flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ cup cornstarch
⅛ tsp salt
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup white sugar
grated zest of ½ lemon
5 tbsp water
3 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp lemon extract
3 tbsp melted butter
3 tbsp hot water
Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9-inch-square baking pan.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.
Place the eggs in a separate bowl, making sure that they are thoroughly beaten and frothy. Add the sugar to the eggs slowly and beat vigorously as you go. Using a stand mixer for this step is best. Add the lemon and water to the egg mixture and continue to beat well.
If you are using a stand mixer, remove the bowl and fold in the flour mixture, a little at a time. Do not over mix, but make sure the batter is smooth.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Insert one into the center of the cake after about 20 minutes and see if it comes out clean. As soon as it does remove the cake from the oven. Let it cool for several minutes and then turn it out on a wire rack to cool completely.
Meanwhile make the icing. Beat all the icing ingredients together in a small bowl. You can use a stand mixer but do not beat too hard. The icing needs to be creamy, but not frothy. Spread the icing evenly along the top and sides of the cake. You can chill the cake to allow the icing to harden if you like.