By Michael Kress
What's not to love about holidays? You get to take off work, everyone's in a great mood, and there's always plenty of delicious food lying around. Wouldn't it be great if we could sustain all that fun and excitement throughout the year? Well, you're in luck. So sit back, crack open a Good Book, and get ready to celebrate these 10 major religious holidays that still aren't on Hallmark's radar.
1. Sikhism: Guru Nanak's Day
Although most Sikhs live in the religion's homeland of India, Sikh communities have become increasingly common in the West. (Those men in turbans you might think are Muslims are most likely Sikh.) But wherever they reside, you can bet Guru Nanak's Day will be celebrated in style.
For the first couple of centuries after Sikhism was founded, 10 gurus served in succession as the leaders of the religion. When the 10th guru died, however, no single leader emerged, and the tradition of having a sole guru was abandoned. Not surprisingly, many Sikh holidays hearken back to events in the lives of these great men. And one of the biggest, no doubt, is the festival honoring the birth of the first guru, Nanak.
Guru Nanak was born to a Hindu family in 1469, and around the time he turned 30, he had a mystical experience that became the basis for the religion. While bathing in a river, he plunged into the water and didn't resurface for three days. During that time, he later said, he was communing with God. Drawing on elements of both Hinduism and Islam, Nanak journeyed far and wide, preaching his new faith of Sikhism and compiling his teachings into a scripture known as the Guru Granth Sahib.
Today, Nanak's birthday, which falls in October or November (depending on the lunar calendar), marks a joyous three-day celebration for Sikhs around the world. As part of the festivities, some communities undertake a ritual known as the Akhand Path, a kind of marathon reading of Sikh scriptures, usually continuing nonstop for the entire 72-hour holiday and ending on Nanak's actual birthday. For the slightly less studious, there are grandiose processions that typically take place the day before Guru Nanak's birthday, during which devotees wave the Sikh flag, brass bands play, and martial-arts teams show off their swordsmanship.
2. Shinto: Shichigosan
The name Shichigosan literally translates to "seven five three," but (despite our best guesses) this holiday isn't a celebration of football plays or ATM codes. Rather, the numbers reference the ages of the festival's guests of honor—children ages 7, 5, and 3. Shichigosan, which falls on the weekend closest to November 15, serves as a kind of rite of passage holiday for the Shinto faithful, and it's popular in Japan, where Shintoism—a belief system that values nature, ritual purity, and the worship of spirits called kami—is one of the dominant religions.
According to Japanese numerology, odd numbers are considered lucky, which is why these particular numbers are celebrated. Traditionally, boys age 5 and girls ages 3 and 7 dress up in special clothes and visit a Shinto temple to receive blessings from the priest. And while it's hard not to love a good blessing, Shinto children likely enjoy Shichigosan more for the treats. At the temple, priests give each child two packages. The first has rice to be mixed into the evening's dinner; the second contains cakes shaped like various Shinto symbols. But the fun doesn't stop there. Parents also throw parties and give their kids gifts in celebration of the special day, and elders hand out "thousand-year candies," which carry wishes for a long life.
3. Christianity: Pentecost
When was the Christian Church truly born? Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus? Or what about Easter, which celebrates Jesus' resurrection? Both are legitimate answers, of course, but more than a few Christians believe the church's true beginning is marked by Pentecost, the holiday that falls 50 days after Easter.
Pentecost celebrates the time when the Holy Spirit descended on a group of Christ's followers 10 days after Jesus' ascent to heaven. Back then, Christians were still Jewish (give that a minute to register), and a group of 120 disciples had gathered to celebrate the Jewish festival of Shavuot (which merits its own slot on this list). As the Book of Acts relates, the people heard what sounded like a rush of wind and saw tongues of fire hovering above them. Then they began speaking in tongues and imparting the teachings of Jesus. Those signs—wind, tongues of fire, and speaking in tongues—were believed to indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. On that day alone, some 3,000 people converted to the new faith. Consequently, many Christians believe that this experience—receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit—marks the launch of the Christian Church.
In Anglican churches, Pentecost is often called Whitsunday (an adaptation of White Sunday) because it was a popular day for baptisms, during which preachers donned white robes. However, some worshippers wear red on Pentecost, as a symbol of the tongues of fire. And if you suspected an etymological connection between the Pentecost holiday and the Pentecostal branch of Christianity, you guessed correctly. Pentecostals believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit, in which believers are overcome by the Spirit and speak in tongues, is a separate experience from baptism with water—and that the faithful should undergo both. Not surprisingly, Pentecost is a particularly important day in Pentecostal churches, though it's celebrated by virtually all Christian sects.
4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Pioneer Day
If you've ever visited Salt Lake City, you know the presence of the Mormon Church—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—looms large. And yet, there was a time when the Great Salt Lake was nothing more than a big body of water with no city beside it. All that changed when Brigham Young, the leader of the nascent Mormon Church, headed west. After a grueling trek that brought him and 15,000 followers to the shores of the lake on July 24, 1847, he took one look at the landscape before him and declared, "This is the place." And just like that, Young proclaimed himself president of a new and independent nation known as the State of Deseret.
But choosing to settle in Salt Lake City wasn't some sort of Wild West real estate speculation. Ever since founder Joseph Smith launched the church in New York in 1830, Mormons had experienced rough times. Americans didn't seem to want the followers of a newly created church living among them, and Mormons were regularly persecuted. They fled to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, but were hounded by citizens and politicians at every stop. So, with few other options, they headed west and arrived in Salt Lake City, a Zion in which they would be allowed to live their lives freely and practice their faith.
It seems to have worked out well for the Mormons in the end. The Church of Latter-day Saints is now the fourth-largest religious body in the United States, and it's expanding rapidly worldwide. And what better reason to set aside Pioneer Day every July 24 for some fireworks, picnics, Mormon folk music, and, of course, prayers of thanksgiving? Celebrating Brigham Young's arrival to the city on that fateful day often involves historical reenactments, with Mormons revisiting parts of the trails their ancestors took across the country and replaying their forefathers' entrance into the Salt Lake Valley. Much of the celebration is focused on community, with contests, concerts, parades, and games organized for the families. It isn't just a Mormon event, though; non-Mormon residents of Utah also participate in the festivities. In fact, Pioneer Day is widely considered to be bigger than the July 4th holiday in the state.
5. Islam: Eid al-Adha
For most Muslims, making the Hajj, or sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience—if that. Fortunately, Eid al-Adha happens once a year. Also known as the Feast of Sacrifice, the observance falls at the end of Hajj season and is intended as a celebration for all Muslims, whether or not they are able to make the pilgrimage. In fact, that's why many consider this holiday the most important one in Islam.
Eid al-Adha begins on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the final month of the Muslim calendar (which lately has fallen in December or January). And although the celebration lasts for four days, the first day is considered the primary holiday. Of course, there's plenty to celebrate when millions of pilgrims complete the days of ritual that mark the Hajj, and there are no shortages of huge feasts. But there's more to Eid al-Adha than just partying at the end of an intense spiritual experience. The holiday is also designed to commemorate a central story in the Qur'an, in which Allah (God) tells Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son, and the dutiful Ibrahim agrees. If the story sounds familiar, that's because there's a similar one in the Old Testament. In the Biblical version, however, Isaac is the one who's supposed to be sacrificed; in the Qur'an, it's Ishmael, Ibrahim's other son. But the moral remains the same. Ibrahim proves he's willing to make the ultimate sacrifice by killing his own child, until God stops him and instructs him to sacrifice a sheep instead.
To celebrate the love and obedience displayed by Ibrahim, a central ritual of Eid al-Adha is animal sacrifice. Muslims kill a lamb or other animal, then keep about one-third for themselves while distributing the rest to friends, family, and especially the poor and sick. It's not all about sacrifice, though. Families also celebrate the joyous occasion by gathering together to exchange gifts, and individuals visit shrines to recite a special prayer, or salah, among a large congregation.
6. Buddhism: Buddha's Birthday
If you've got any clue who's buried in Grant's tomb or what color George Washington's white horse was, then we won't ask you to guess who was born on Buddha's birthday. The answer, of course, is Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. Also known as Shakyamuni, Gautama Buddha, or just "the Buddha," Siddhartha was a Himalayan prince who left behind his sheltered royal world to pursue enlightenment. Sure enough, he found it, and a new religion was born.
Today, Buddhists celebrate the birth of Siddhartha Gautama as their religion's primary holiday. Yet, festivities commemorating the special occasion differ from country to country—even the date and duration of the holiday varies. Traditionally, it falls on the eighth day of the fourth month on the Chinese lunar calendar (in 2007, it falls on May 24), which is when people in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea typically observe the occasion. However, in Japan, where it's known as the Flower Festival, Buddha's Birthday is always celebrated on April 8. In other countries, such as India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, the holiday goes on for an entire month, though one day—Vesak, which coincides with the first full moon in May or June—is the most important. On that day, Buddhists in these places recognize not only the Buddha's birth, but also his enlightenment and death.
No matter where you are, most Buddhist traditions on this holiday revolve around studying Buddha's life, listening to sermons about him, venerating images of the Buddha, and visiting monasteries. Some devotees perform a ceremony in which they pour sweet tea over a statue of the baby Siddhartha to recall the legend that sweet tea rained down from the skies when the future Buddha was born. In Japan, people often attend joyous parades filled with all sorts of papier-mÃ¢chÃ© floats, including giant white elephants to symbolize the Buddha's arrival from India. Others simply bathe their Buddha statues in water—a reminder that everyone's heart should be clean and pure. Another one of the day's primary rituals involves showing signs of Buddha-like compassion—namely, abstaining from killing of any kind. Many Buddhists refrain from eating meat, and in Sri Lanka, slaughterhouses are even closed. In a further act of liberation, it's common for people to release caged birds or make origami birds and float them down a river. Finally, many Buddhists take this opportunity to make a pilgrimage to Lumbini, in modern-day Nepal, which is believed to be the Buddha's birthplace.
7. Hinduism: Diwali
Light the lamps and break out the fireworks; Rama has returned victorious from his struggle against the evil demon king! At least, that's one of the events commemorated during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Depending on whom you ask, Diwali is also a time to honor Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and to celebrate Krishna's successful battle with a demon of his own. Whatever the reason, Diwali is a favorite festival for Hindus around the world—a time to celebrate the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.
The dates of Diwali vary depending on the Hindu lunar calendar, but it usually falls during October or November, when the days are getting shorter. Further, the mid-point of the five-day holiday occurs during the new moon, so it's fitting that the holiday's primary ritual involves lights. To celebrate, cities organize huge fireworks displays, while Hindus decorate their homes and businesses with rows of earthenware lamps. In India, worshippers create a dazzling display by floating oil lamps across the Ganges River. The lights of Diwali—also known as Deepavali, meaning "row of lights"—are intended to help Lakshmi find her way into people's homes (in the hopes that she will grant them prosperity) or to celebrate the return of Rama, one of the most beloved Hindu deities.
Because of the holiday's connection with the goddess of wealth, many business people consider Diwali the beginning of the new fiscal year and will have a puja, or ritual ceremony, to inaugurate the new year's books. In addition, many Hindus have a tradition of playing cards and other games of chance on Diwali, in commemoration of the belief that the goddess Parvati and her husband Shiva played dice on this night and declared that whoever gambles on Diwali would have a prosperous year.
Diwali is arguably Hinduism's biggest holiday. Presents and sweets are often exchanged, more and more money is spent on it annually, and its popularity is spreading quickly. In fact, there are signs that Diwali might not be on future versions of this list. Last year, New York's city council voted to add the festival to its list of days when regular parking restrictions are lifted.
8. Paganism: Samhain
While most of America is out trick-or-treating on Halloween, Pagans are busy celebrating one of their most important festivals, Samhain. As a religion, Paganism is a bit hard to define, but it's most simply thought of as a broad heading for many groups, including Wiccans, that look to ancient, pre-Judeo-Christian traditions for spiritual inspiration. And on October 31 (or November 1 for some), Pagans find that inspiration in the commemoration of summer's end, known as Samhain. (The overlap with Halloween is not coincidental, because the two days occur during harvest time and probably share roots in Celtic or other ancient Pagan rituals.)
While most of us hate thinking about saying goodbye to the warm weather and vacation time, Pagans view Samhain more as a chance to celebrate the approach of winter, acknowledge the cycle of the seasons, and take heart in knowing that, after winter passes, another summer will approach. To mark the occasion, Pagans participate in a wide array of activities. The most popular include sharing in communal feasts, making bonfires, and taking meditative walks. The holiday also involves rituals honoring the dead, including leaving food out for wandering souls and calling out the names of community members who have died.
9. American Indian: Sun Dance
The Sundance Film Festival might be a religious holiday for some, but American Indian tribes of the Great Plains began celebrating their own festival of Sun Dance long before Robert Redford brought movies to Park City, Utah. For American Indians, Sun Dance, which falls in late June, is a time to give thanks to God for the harvests and livestock that sustain human life. The holiday is commemorated, as one might guess, with ritual dances honoring the Sun.
While a variety of tribes celebrate Sun Dance, the Sioux give it particular emphasis. For its members, the celebration takes place around a tree, which serves as a connection between heaven and Earth. The tree is also surrounded by tepees, which represent the cosmos. Against this backdrop, dancers paint their bodies with symbolic colors (red for sunset, blue for sky, yellow for lightning, and so on) and wear clothes and jewelry made from sacred animals. But the Sioux's Sun Dance is more than shimmying and clapping. Many participants fast throughout the festival, which usually lasts from one to three days. In the past, Sun Dance often included ritualistic self-torture, with dancers puncturing their skin with skewers. The combination of these elements sometimes results in followers seeing fantastic visions or falling into trances that are thought to bring them closer to the spirits. Both the fasting and the self-torture also represent a symbolic death—and then glorious rebirth—for those involved.
In 1904, the U.S. government outlawed Sun Dance, disturbed by the self-torture aspects of the festival. Many American Indians continued to celebrate the holiday, however, without the skewering and puncturing element. In recent years, efforts have surfaced to revive more traditional forms of the holiday, which was formally made legal again with the passage of the American Indian Religion Freedom Act of 1978.
10. Judaism: Shavuot
For Jews, there's nothing more sacred than the Torah—also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. Whatever name you use, the Torah is the centerpiece of Jewish life, and at the center of that centerpiece are the Ten Commandments. According to the Bible (and the Charlton Heston movie), Moses revealed the Ten Commandments to the Israelites from atop Mt. Sinai, and that day came to be known as Shavuot, which falls in May or early June, depending on the lunar calendar.
The name Shavuot literally means "weeks." That may seem like an arbitrary name, but it's actually a reference to the holiday that falls exactly seven weeks prior to Shavuot—Passover, which marks the Hebrews' escape from slavery in Egypt. After so much hardship, Jews believe receiving the Torah on Shavuot signals the completion of their transition from anonymous slaves to members of a full-fledged independent nation.
So why is Shavuot so little known outside traditional Jewish circles? It could be that the holiday lacks the kind of high-profile, evocative rituals that mark the better-known Jewish holidays, such as the Seder feasts at the beginning of Passover or the sounding of the shofar (ram's horn trumpet) during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But that's not to say Shavuot is without its own rituals. One primary Shavuot custom involves eating dairy foods (think cheesecake, cheesecake, cheesecake), a tasty, if cholesterol-raising, tradition that's been ascribed several different origins, including the scriptural use of milk as a metaphor for the Torah. On the more obvious side, many Jews use Shavuot as an opportunity to study the Torah. In fact, some stay up all night learning, reading, and teaching the scripture, all in anticipation of symbolically receiving the Torah anew on the holy day.
All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated.