‘Tis the season for holidays in many parts of the Anglophone world. Not just the commercial juggernaut that is Christmas and the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving just past, but Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, the New Year, and scores of the observances and awareness days that pack the entirely yearly calendar. Diwali wasn’t that long ago, nor Halloween, while the lunar Islamic calendar means that Ramadan occurs at different points in the calendar depending on the year.
You may have noticed that the holidays I’m listing there are a mix of sacred and secular. That’s because we tend to use the same term for all special days, whether you get the day off from normal work (another sense of that word) or whether it’s a religious observance or not (“holiday” literally coming from “holy day”). We’ll start off looking at the sacred kind, and move on to secular next week.
What can be the occasion for a sacred holiday? Some of the oldest ones can be traced back to agricultural rituals, which makes a lot of sense. Events of that sort served many purposes at once: you want to propitiate and thank the deity in charge of making your crops grow, and also remember when you ought to be planting or harvesting, and also bring the community together for the kinds of mass labor often involved with major points in the crop cycle. The exact timing will vary from region to region, depending on what you’re growing and where, but the core idea tends be found anywhere you find farming. (So far as I know, mobile hunter-gatherers don’t have this kind of thing nearly as much. Rituals, absolutely; scheduled, society-wide events, no — which makes sense when your society is a few dozen people at a time.)
Other holidays are pegged to events in the life of an important religious figure. Birth and/or death are of course the most common candidates here, for fairly obvious reasons. But you can also look at other milestones, whether those are ordinary human ones like passage to adulthood or marriage, great deeds they performed, or even events outside the scope of their actual life, like the Annunciation, the Christian holiday commemorating the Virgin Mary receiving word from the Archangel Gabriel that she was to conceive and bear Jesus. You see this a lot with the founders of religions, or with specific deities in a pantheon who have well-developed cults; the feast days of saints in some branches of Christianity follow a similar idea.
Not all such “event-based” holidays have to be about a specific individual, though. In Judaism, for example, you can find holidays that mark events significant to the Jewish people as a whole: Passover commemorates God sparing them from the deaths of the first-born, while Shavuot does the same for the giving of the Torah (and Ramadan in Islam marks the giving of all scripture), and many people are familiar with Hanukkah, which memorializes the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Finally, holidays can exist to focus people’s attention on broader concepts which are key to the faith. Looking to Judaism again, Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement,” devoted to the idea of repenting for the wrongs one has done to God and one’s fellows. Depending on where you are in Southeast Asia, you’ll find multiple different mythological explanations for Diwali — one widespread tradition connects it to Rama’s defeat of Ravana and his return home after years of exile — but they all share at their root the general idea of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil. And Shichi-Go-San, a Japanese festival, celebrates the health of children: girls at the ages of seven and three, and boys at the age of five. (Having a festival of that sort makes a great deal of sense when you remember how serious of a problem infant and early childhood mortality used to be.)
Mind you, even a light swipe with a finger over the surface of many of these holidays will find that they incorporate more than one kind of significance. In particular, rather a lot of them double as harvest festivals — which isn’t remotely surprising. It isn’t just that newer religions often co-opt the holidays of older ones rather than trying to stamp them out (though that is also true); it’s also that if an occasion is meant to be celebratory instead of somber, then you need to time it for when people will have abundant food, and perhaps some highly perishable produce that needs to be eaten before it can go bad. Late winter is a terrible time for parties if you don’t have agricultural surpluses and good ways of storing them.
I should also take a moment to note the role of the sky in these things. I mentioned the winter solstice before; the solstices and the equinoxes are half of the eight major festivals observed by many Wiccans and neo-pagans, and the various sites around the world which have been built to interact with the alignment of the sun on such occasions certainly imply that some kind of observance was connected with them in the past as well.
But even events which aren’t about the movements of the heavens are often linked to them. Your agricultural holidays are worse than useless if you don’t time them correctly, and getting that right means paying attention to the sky. Because of the lunisolar basis of the Hebrew calendar, Passover most often starts on the first full moon after the spring equinox, and the appearance and disappearance of the Pleiades constellation is used in many parts of the world to mark the appropriate time for certain activities such as planting new crops. Basically, although mythological narratives are frequently attached to the night sky, it more often seems to be the case that the movement of given star or constellation has practical significance which gives rise to a narrative and a holiday than that the narrative itself occasions a holiday, which happens to be timed to the stars.
Secular holidays are a very different matter (though the line between them can be blurry). We’ll look at those next week!