What Is Pentecost and Why Do Some Christians Celebrate It?

Religious symbol of Pentecost

Months after Easter, many Christians celebrate the day of Pentecost. If you're scratching your head wondering, "What is Pentecost?"—you're not alone. This celebration in the church may not be as universally well-known as events like Christmas and Lent, but it's just as powerful and poignant.

"When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak," Acts 2:1-4 (CEB) says.

Most Christians have read about the earliest days of the church, found in the opening chapters of Acts and the collection of Epistles. The moment we read about in Acts Chapter 2 almost reads like a biblical Wizard of Oz moment. Fierce wind, flames of fire and speaking in tongues, oh my.

For those Christians who observe a liturgical calendar, this festival day is observed every spring, fifty days after Easter Sunday. What is Pentecost exactly, why do only some Christians observe the holy day, and how do they celebrate? Keep reading to learn more.

Related: 35 Insightful Bible Verses for Pentecost to Pay Tribute to the Power of the Holy Spirit

When Is Pentecost 2024? 

Pentecost takes place on Sunday, May 19 in 2024 for Christians who observe the Julian calendar. Eastern Orthodox and other Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar will celebrate Pentecost on Sunday, June 23. 

This Feast Day is celebrated annually 40 days after the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, and 50 days after Easter, which for many Christians marks the conclusion of Eastertide. From this point on in the church calendar year, the church turns its focus away from the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

Related: 300 Bible Trivia Questions

What Is Pentecost?

Pentecost is a Christian festival commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on followers of Jesus Christ. From a children's book, The Day When God Made Church: A Child's First Book About Pentecost, written by Rebekah McLeod Hutto and illustrated by Stephanie Haig: "Something new is happening. The Holy Spirit has arrived!"

Today, churches celebrate in a variety of ways; including accessorizing sanctuaries with the liturgical color red, with orange mixed in, symbolizing flames of fire, inviting individuals to share words of encouragement from their native tongue, and incorporating any number of prayers, liturgical readings, and passages of scripture into the service.

In the Orthodox Church, the icon associated with the Feast of Pentecost is 'The Descent of the Holy Spirit.' As the website, eeparchy.com, explains, the images portrayed in this icon point to the Church as witness to Christ throughout history.

Pentecost Meaning

In Greek, the word Pentecost literally means "fiftieth." According to Faith Giant: "The Pentecost has a variety of names in the Bible: Shavuot, The Feast of Weeks, the First Fruits, or the Feast of Harvest. Pentecost or Shavuot is traditionally known as a festive time in Israel for offering thanksgiving and bestowing offerings for the new grain of the summer wheat harvest."

What Happened at Pentecost?

What was originally a Jewish Festival (and it remains so) occurring fifty days after the Feast of Weeks, was recognized by early Christians as the birthday of the church.

On that day, a large crowd had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival, when suddenly a fierce wind filled the house where they gathered, and flames of fire fell on the people, causing the Galilean Jews to speak in languages native to the many nations represented in Jerusalem that day. Simon Peter, a disciple of Jesus, gave a powerful sermon, and the day ended with 3,000 people being saved and baptized into the community.

Related: 50 Bible Verses About Baptism

History of Pentecost

The Festival of Pentecost could have been celebrated every year since its first occurrence in Acts. It's mentioned very early on (the 2nd Century) in an Eastern Orthodox document, Epistola Apostolorum, and referenced later by early church fathers, Origen and Tertulian.

For reasons beyond the scope of this article, Protestant Christians by and large stopped following the church calendar, including the observance of Pentecost, during a time of dissension and persecution in Europe's Reformation, in order to separate themselves fully from the authority of the Roman church. Although some individual Protestant churches today acknowledge Pentecost Sunday, most do not.

Up Next: What Is Orthodox Easter?