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Poetry and Potato Sacks: How to Celebrate Pentecost

How do you celebrate Pentecost? In years past, my tradition consisted of showing up to Sunday Mass, glancing at the bulletin, and thinking, “Shoot, is it Pentecost already? I should have worn my red dress.”

Why does this day sneak up on us, unheralded? Is it in part because, unlike Christmas and Easter, there is no secular, consumerist hype about it? The stores have cleared out their Easter candy at 75% off and already brought in Fourth of July paraphernalia. The shelves are not graced by white Marshmallow Peep doves in honor of the Holy Ghost. The aisle end-caps proclaim no special sales on spicy foods to give you a “tongue of fire”. Is this why we forget?

Perhaps, but if the holiday is untainted by consumerism, we should at least be hyping it up in our parishes. Alas, the Holy Ghost is severely underappreciated even in His Church! It was not always so. At the risk of boring my readers, I’ll briefly run through a liturgical history of Pentecost to shed some light on how much we neglect this high feast of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, and then I will move on to the fun part: how to party properly for Pentecost.

Like everything in Catholicism, it started with the law of the Old Testament, which is always to be fulfilled and not abolished. In Exodus 34:18-23, God commands His people to sacrifice and make pilgrimage three times per year: once at the Feast of Unleavened Bread or Passover, once at the wheat harvest or Feast of Weeks seven weeks later, and once at the Feast of Booths in the autumn. The Feast of Weeks was also referred to in Greek as Pentecost or “fifty days.”

In Acts, of course, the Apostles are gathered together in the upper room at the time of Pentecost and receive the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised before he ascended to the Father. Once they receive the Spirit, the first members of the Church are able to preach to all nations—immediately, with their infused tongues, as well as ever after in their successors throughout the world.

This coming of the Holy Spirit is as important an event as the Paschal Sacrifice or the birth of Jesus. Without it, I think it is reasonable to say that none of us would be part of the Church today. Therefore, Pentecost has always been celebrated from the earliest centuries as a day nearly equal with Easter, and at least on a level with Christmas and Epiphany.

For hundreds of years leading up to the liturgical reforms of the 1960s, Pentecost included a special vigil Mass the night before and an octave during the week after. The octave contained the summer Ember Days, which were instituted to pray and fast for soon-to-be-ordained priests, but also partly to give thanks for the wheat harvest, neatly in continuity with the original Feast of Weeks. Historically, the Monday after Pentecost, and possibly more days that week, were also holy days of obligation and of celebration.

In the new calendar, the Pentecost vigil still exists, though the extended version—with several prophetic readings, similar to the Easter vigil—is rarely celebrated in parishes, probably due to the custom of having an anticipated Sunday Mass on Saturday evenings. The Monday following Pentecost Sunday was nothing in particular for a few decades, until it recently became the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church. The octave, of course, is gone. In short, Pentecost is treated more as a one-day event that closes the season of Easter, rather than a major feast in its own right.

Culturally, too, there is little awareness of this great day. When it was a holy day of obligation, the Monday after Pentecost was also a public holiday in many places. Today, some nations in Europe keep this up, sometimes under the name “Whit Monday,” but often with its origins and meaning relatively forgotten. The United States never even had that.

But there is a better way.

According to Rev. Francis X. Weiser, S. J., in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs, our forebears celebrated Pentecost with a variety of traditions, some of which we can adopt today in our homes and parishes. I do not recommend the one where people dropped flaming bits of straw or wick from a hole in the ceiling of the church; as Rev. Weiser notes, “This practice … tended to put the people on fire externally, instead of internally as the Holy Spirit had done at Jerusalem.” But we could safely make little paper doves and hang them up in our homes, perhaps from a ceiling fan (a mighty rushing wind, no?).

Christmas has its customs of decorating with greenery and specific colors; why not Pentecost? Some medieval Catholics referred to Pentecost as the “flower feast” or “feast of roses” because of their custom of decorating with spring and summer flowers at this time. We can easily adopt this, decorating with seasonal flowers, especially those that come in white, red, pink, orange, or yellow, to symbolize the fiery beauty of the Holy Ghost.

The priest wears red vestments for Pentecost; we can also wear red, for fire and the love of the Holy Ghost. White is also appropriate; it is the Church’s color for joy, and it is the color the newly baptized wear, those who have just received the Holy Spirit for the first time. (Historically, the Pentecost vigil, like the Easter vigil, was a time for baptizing catechumens, hence the name “Whitsunday” or “White Sunday” in England.) Continuing the theme, we can use red or white table linens. We can light candles for dinner and sing the Veni Creator Spiritus together before feasting.

Speaking of feasting, we in the Latin church could imitate the Byzantine custom of blessing grains and pastries before the Pentecost vigil (which, of course, we should celebrate in every parish with great pomp), to reflect the Old Testament thanksgiving for the wheat crop. Let us fast or make some penitent gesture on the Eve of Pentecost and on the Ember Days that follow it, but feast on the blessed bread on the day itself.

If you cannot live on bread alone, someone at a website called The Stream has a number of other exciting ideas about what to serve at a Pentecost feast. (Anything that has the sentence, “Toss salad as it flames, before guests,” is clearly worth a read, even if it didn’t also advocate bungee jumping.) A friend recently told me about his family’s custom of baking cupcakes, topping each one with a lump of sugar that has been doused in vanilla extract or some other strong alcohol and set aflame. In short, anything fiery and festive and a little bit dangerous is highly encouraged.

Our forebears also used Pentecost as a day for games and races. If Easter has its egg hunts, why not Pentecost its potato sack races? Why not adopt the British custom of chasing after a rolling wheel of cheese (or maybe an old tire)? Depending on where you live and how late Pentecost falls, it might even be warm enough to throw water balloons at each other (Pentecost was also one of the traditional days for baptism). Hand out sparklers! Get a head start on the fireworks! This feast is more important than any Independence Day.

One final custom I will advocate, one that has little historical basis but which I hope will become a popular tradition. For the past three years, I have thrown a very special, though simple, party for Pentecost: a bonfire, festive food and drink, singing, and the reading of poetry. My reasoning for the fire and feasting should be obvious; my reasoning for the poetry and song is that the Holy Ghost inspires such things. In the early chapters of St. Luke’s Gospel, there are three canticles—that is, chanted songs or poems: the Canticle of Zechariah, the Magnificat, and the Canticle of Simeon. Shortly before each of these canticles, the phrase “being filled with the Holy Spirit” is always found. And we know that the Holy Ghost inspired the writing of all of Scripture, including the many Psalms and Canticles therein.

What better way to celebrate the Third Person of the Trinity, once the formal liturgies are done, than with music and beautiful words? And reciting or chanting poetry around a fire is a deeply human and wholesome activity that is not done nearly enough. Catholicism gives us a rich heritage of poems that deserve to be proclaimed aloud, from the explicitly religious (such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” very appropriate for the Feast of the Holy Ghost) to the secular (Belloc wrote some very funny poems). If, as the evening wears on, someone wants to read a bit of Shel Silverstein’s hilarious verse or even gain the courage to share some lines of his own, will the Trinity be displeased? I doubt it.

The key is this: We live in the Time after Pentecost. We have been baptized and confirmed, receiving the incomprehensible gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon us in so many ways, both subtle and dramatic, but all too easily ignored. In gratitude, let us celebrate this important day both in our parishes and our domestic churches, that the Holy Spirit will be honored to the best of our ability.

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