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Whitsuntide, the week following Whit Sunday or Pentecost, was traditionally a time for celebration as the first holiday of the summer. Whit Monday used to be a public holiday in the UK, but as the date varied (according to when Easter fell) it was replaced with the fixed Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May.


There were traditional sports like wrestling and archery, as well as more unusual ones, like trying to catch a greased or soapy pig, gurning (making a funny faces, often through a horse collar) or climbing a greasy pole. Whit Monday was a popular time for both Morris dancing and Maypole dancing.


An annual Whit Sunday scrambling custom, which still takes place at St Briavel’s in Gloucestershire, is where bread and cheese are distributed by being thrown from the top of a high stone wall to the waiting crowd below. The ceremony once took place in the church after Evensong, but changing ideas of appropriate behaviour prompted a move outside. At first the throwing was done from the top of the tower, but then from a rooftop out into the lane where it still takes place. The first known record of the custom dates from 1779, but it is presumed to be much older and somehow connected to the preservation of the right of local people to collect firewood from the nearby wood. An alternative explanation is that King John stayed at St Briavel’s castle in or about 1204 and he gave the village a thousand acres of land stipulating that bread and cheese should be distributed every Whit Sunday to uphold the right.


Cheese rolling is another strange tradition that takes place in many parts of the country. Women in Kent chase a thrown Edam cheese down a sloping village green during the annual Whit Monday Fair. In Stilton, Cambridgeshire, teams of four, in bizarre costumes, roll Stilton cheeses along a 50-yard course. They must not kick or throw the cheeses. The prize is a whole Stilton Cheese, which weighs about 16 pounds, and bottles of port - the traditional accompaniment.

Another popular Gloucester event is the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll. Hordes of fearless competitors hurl themselves down a death-defyingly steep hill chasing an 8lb Double Gloucester cheese. The winner gets to keep the cheese. Please don't try this at home!


Whitsun was also a traditional time for walks and processions. A traditional Procession of Witness or Whit Walk has long been celebrated throughout the North West. The picture above shows the whole village taking part in a walk from the 1950s, while the picture below shows a modern Whit Walk in Manchester.


Merrymaking in medieval times, the churches brewed and sold ales. These ales were sold for many occasions, christenings, weddings, wakes and Whitsun. The Whitsun ales were produced in May for festivals and celebrations, usually at Whitsun, hence the name!

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