A Celebration of the Season: 10 Holidays that Showcase Our Diversity
The etymology of holiday harkens to the Proto-Germanic hailagaz (“holy, bringing health”) and hailaz (“healthy”). Descendants are many, including Old English halig, Old Saxon hēlag, German heilag, Gothic hailags, and Swedish helig.
During the Middle Ages – roughly between the 12th and 15th centuries – the English spelling made its way from hali toholy, and dæg to day. Its definition was both “religious festival” and “day of recreation.”
It means the same things today, and around the world a spectacular variety of holidays exists for every day of the year – from religious observances to cultural and geographical celebrations to cause-related tributes and even gastronomical galas. (Mark your calendar for National Cheese Doodle Day. [March 5th] It’ll sneak up on you.)
For many, the autumn/winter transition is a biggie when we think about “The Holiday Season.” So given the time of year, here are 10 holidays that celebrate and showcase our diversity during the last three months of the Gregorian calendar.
Yom Kippur (October)
Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and is considered the holiest day of the Jewish year. As part of the High Holidays (which also includes the two days of Rosh Hashanah), Yom Kippur is a day set aside to dedicate mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with G-d, fellow human beings, and one’s self. Observances include fasting, rest, reflection, and prayer. Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath – it lasts approximately 25 hours, beginning just before sunset the night before and ending just after nightfall the day of.
Al-Hijra (October 25, 2014)
Al-Hijra is the Islamic New Year. It is the first day of the Islamic month of Muharram, and it marks the Hijra (or Hegira) in 622 CE when the Prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina and established the first Islamic state. Although a low-key event, many Muslims regard the day as a time for reflection on the Hijra and on the year to come. (It’s important to note that the Islamic calendar is lunar and does not employ a system to align it with the solar calendar; thus, one year has 354 days. For this reason, Islamic holidays do not always fall in the same season, and they occur earlier every year on the solar calendar. In 2015, Muharram begins on October 14th.)
Also known as Deepawali and Divali, Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, and it’s one of the biggest celebrations for Hindus. The name is derived from the Sanskrit dipavali meaning “row of lights,” which are lit on the new moon to venerate Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. Each of the days is guided by unique traditions that signify the victory of good over evil – light, peace and prosperity over darkness and ignorance. During the festival, India is literally illuminated by rows of lamps (on land and set adrift on water) and fireworks displays. The annual date of the festival is based on the position of the moon.
Guru Nanak Jayanti (October/November)
This celebrates the 15th-century birthday of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, founder of Sikhism. As one of the most important Sikh festivals, Guru Nanak Jayanti is celebrated by Sikh and Punjabi communities worldwide, observed by music and processions, reading of holy literature, community service, and free lunches for anyone regardless of religious faith. Guru Nanak’s key teachings include equality of humans, equality of woman, and universal acceptance of all creatures. The celebration’s date changes every year, but falls in October or November of the Gregorian calendar.
Hanukkah (sometimes transliterated Chanukkah) is Hebrew for “dedication” and commemorates the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory over Syrian Greeks in 165 BCE. It celebrates the eight-day miracle of the Hanukkah oil: To purify the Temple, ritual oil needed to burn for eight days in the Temple’s menorah, but only one day of oil was left. They lit the menorah anyway and the oil miraculously burned the full eight days. Traditional observances include the lighting of the menorah (hanukkiyah), eating fried foods, and spinning the dreidel. Hanukkah falls on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar-based (a corrective system is used to align it with the solar calendar), Hanukkah falls on a different day each year – usually between late November and late December.
International Day of Persons with Disability (December 3)
Proclaimed by the United Nations in 1992, this is a day of observance meant to promote awareness and understanding of disability issues, celebrate full participation of variously abled people in all aspects of society, and support the dignity and rights of persons with disabilities. Each year focuses on a different issue, with recent themes including independent living, accessibility, information technologies, and arts and culture.
Bodhi Day (December 8)
Bodhi Day is a celebration of the day in 596 BCE that Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment – complete freedom from his corporeal frame – after meditating under the Bodhi tree. Eventually becoming the Buddha (Awakened One), he was able through meditation to discover the cause of all suffering (the Four Noble Truths) and the cure (the Eightfold Path). For Buddhists, this “Day of Enlightenment” is a day of remembrance, meditation, and Dharma studies. Bodhi Day is the 8th day of the 12th lunar month but has been given a fixed date in the Gregorian calendar of December the 8th.
Winter Solstice (December 21)
The winter solstice (solstice means “stationary sun”) is an astronomical event marking the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the longest day of the year for those living south of the equator. It’s due to the Earth’s 23.5-degree tilt: the Northern Hemisphere is pointed at its furthest distance from the sun, and the Southern Hemisphere is at its closest. The winter solstice is venerated by many, including Wiccans, Pagans, Mayans, and other native peoples.
Christmas (December 25)
Christmas is the most celebrated Christian holiday of the year, honoring the birth of Jesus Christ by the Virgin Mary. Because the exact date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, historians believe December 25th was chosen to align with the Roman tradition of Saturnalia – a highly revered celebration honoring Saturn (god of agriculture) on the Winter Solstice. Over two millennia, Christmas has evolved into a worldwide celebration that is both religious and secular. Festivities include many customs and traditions from other cultures and include religious services, Christmas trees, lights, caroling, mistletoe, gift-giving, and (of course) Santa Claus.
Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1)
Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrating family, community, and culture. Its origins are in the first harvest celebrations; Kwanzaa is derived from “matunda ya kwanza” which is Swahili for “fresh fruits.” The holiday was created to reaffirm, restore, and pay tribute to the rich cultural roots of the African diaspora, and the celebration is based on seven guiding principles (one for each of seven days): Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Observances include candle lighting, storytelling, gift giving, food, music, and dance to highlight family, personal growth, and achievement.
On behalf of everyone at Act-On …
“Yom Kippur” image source: Public Domain.
“Sunrise Cairo first day Eid Al Adha” image source: Public Domain.
“Rangoli with Light & Shadow” by Ramnath Bhat, used under Creative Commons license.
“GuruNanakDevJi” image source: SikhiWiki.
“Bodhi Tree” image source: Public Domain.
“Sephardic style Menorah from Spain” by Roy Lindman, used under Creative Commons license.