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Holidays of the Middle East

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Religious Holidays of the Middle East

by Saida Nusseibeh and Ami Isseroff

Holidays are a part of the national and religious life of each people. Learning about holidays is a good way for people of the MMddle east to become acquainted. These pages are devoted to the many holidays of the peoples of the Middle East. The list will grow as time allows. Volunteer efforts are welcome. Please tell us about your favorite holidays!

Baha'i    Christian         Druze      Jewish           Muslim

Bahai Festivals

Month of Fasting  - Bahai preparation for New Year. [March]

Naw Ruz--Baha'i New Year (Year 157) and feast honoring the one Deity as Baha - Splendor.[March]

Ridvan -- Twelve day celebration of Baha'u'llah's declaration identifying himself as the new Prophet. Baha'u'llah believed Deity to be male, female, and beyond gender. [April/May]

Declaration of the Bab - The Night Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad announced his identity as the Bab (1844). The Bab foretold the coming of Baha'i Prophet Baha'u'llah. [May]

Ascension of Baha'u'llah - Death day of Baha'i Prophet Baha'u'llah (1892).[May]

Martyrdom of the Bab  - Death day of the Bab, Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad (1850).] [a/k/a Martyrdom of the Bab[ July]

Birth of the Bab -  Birthday of the Bab, Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad (1819).] [November]

Birth of Baha'u'llah -  Birthday of Mirza Husayn Ali Baha'u'llah (1817), mystic and founder of the Baha'i faith.] [November]

Christian Festivals

Christmas and related Holidays

Advent Sunday - The start of the Christian year. Four Sundays before Christmas, anticipation mounts. The period is often counted through by the use of Advent calendars and Advent wreaths, on which an additional candle is lit each Sunday till Christmas, signifying the transition from darkness to light. [December]

Christmas -   Christmas Day celebrates the birth of Jesus. A rich variety of songs and carols have developed and it is traditional to depict the nativity in the manger through sets in churches and homes and plays which re-enact the events of the story. Evergreens are also traditional as symbols of unfailing life. Feasting and gift giving are the order of the day. The Christmas season lasts for twelve days.  Those Orthodox Churches who retained the old calendar celebrate all fixed festivals thirteen days after the Western Churches. [December 24/25 in Western churches] More about Christmas.

Circumcision Day (Name Day) - The circumcision or naming of Jesus. Reminds Christians of the rooting of Jesus and the Christian religion in the Jewish tradition.. [January 1] 

Epiphany - Celebrates the first 'manifestation' of the Christ variously interpreted as the time of the adoration of the Magi, his baptism and the miracle at Cana. The festival completes the 'twelve days of Christmas' and is particularly observed in the Eastern Church. [January]

Candlemas. - A traditional Christian festival that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after the birth of her son.   It also marks the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple.  Christians were observing this holiday in Jerusalem as early as the 4th Century A.D.   According to a  Jewish tradition, women were considered unclean after the birth of a child and were not permitted to enter the Temple to  worship until purified.  This purification was done 40 days after the birth of a  son and 60 days after the birth of a daughter.  At the end of the 40 or 60 days, the mother was brought to the Temple or synagogue and ritually purified, allowing her to  go to religious services again, and generally go out in public. Candlemas is celebrated on or around Groundhog's day. The holiday also has pagan roots. [February 2]

Easter and related Holidays - Easter Holidays celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They include Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), Ash Wednesday, Lent, Passion Sunday, Annunciation, Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter itself and Petecost. More about Easter Holidays

Trinity Sunday - A day devoted to contemplation of the Christian doctrine of the trinity that sees God as an indivisible unity, but also as revealed in three distinct roles, Father, son and Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday is celebrated seven days after Pentecost. [June]

Corpus Christi - Particularly Catholic festival to celebrate the Eucharist, which can be rather more joyous than the anniversary of its founding, which took place during Lent. Trinity Sunday is celebrated eleven days after Pentecost. [June]

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary -  Called Dormition   (falling asleep of the Mother of God) by the Orthodox. Celebrates the 'taking up' of Mary, body and soul, to heaven. Many Catholic communities mark the festival with procession and fetes. [August 15]

All Saints' Day (All Hallows/Halloween)  -  An opportunity to offer thanks for the work and witness of all saints in recognition that not all are known or specially celebrated. The evening before is Halloween, celebrated by masked "trick or treat" visits from children. [Oct 31 - November 1]

All Souls' Day -  On this day in particular the departed are remembered and prayed for. {November 2]

Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary -  Celebrates the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary herself was born free from Original Sin leaving her sinless for the bearing of Jesus. [December 8]

Druze Festivals

Druze celebrate Eid El Fitr, and Eid El-Adha, and honor the Prophet Shu'ab (Jethro) and the Prophet Sabultan.

Jewish Festivals

The Jewish holy days begin at dusk in the evening. Calendar dates are approximate, according to the Jewish Lunar Calendar, which is corrected by addition of a leap month every year. 

Tu Bishvat . The new year of the trees, in which new trees are planted. [February]. More about Tu'Bishvat.

Purim .- Celebrates the rescue of Persian Jews 2,300 years ago by Queen Esther with a carnival and noisemakers [March]. More about Purim

Passover (Pesach) - Passover recalls the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, celebrates early spring harvest, and has become a vehicle for giving children and families the elements of Jewish identity. [April]  

Maimuna - The day following the end of Passover is the holiday of Maimuna, in honor of Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) the renowned Sephardic Jewish scholar of the middle ages.

Lag B'omer -  The Omer period of 49 days ( seven weeks) from Pesach to Shavuot is a period of sadness, relieved by this 33rd day on which plague suffered in Roman times terminated. It is frequently celebrated by outdoor celebrations for children and a disproportionate number of weddings, which cannot take place during the rest of Omer. [April-May]

Holocaust day - Yom Hashoah Vehagvura -  A day of remembrance for the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and for resistance fighters. Memorial candles are lit and special services are held. [May]

Yom Hazikaron - Memorial Day for all those fallen in the battles of Israel.

Independence Day - The Jewish calendar continues interpreting events of significance in the history of the Jewish Nation, as religious occasions with special prayer. Thus Yom Ha'atzma'ut, a modern festival celebrating Israel's independence is celebrated with prayers in the synagogues. [May]

Shavuot - (Feast of Weeks- Pentecost) One of the three pilgrim festivals when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. It celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai and the wheat harvest. Synagogues are decorated with flowers and dairy foods are eaten. [May/Jun]

Tisha B'av - A full day fast mourning the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies in Jewish history. The Book of Lamentation is read. [August]

The Jewish "High Holy Days"

Rosh Hashana . - New Year's Day, commemorates the creation of the world. The blowing of the ram's horn reminds Jews of Abraham's sacrifice of a ram in place of his son. This festival begins ten days of repentance and self-examination ("Yamim Hanoraim" - the days of awe) during which God sits in judgment on each individual. Apples and pastry dipped in honey are eaten in the hope of a 'sweet' year. During the ten days of awe, some orthodox Jews sacrifice chickens who are supposed to take on themselves the sins of the people. According to tradition, during this time, the names of the righteous are inscribed in the book of life, while those who have not repented are recorded for doom. The books are sealed are the holidays by tradition, making the judgment irrevocable.  The traditional greeting for Rosh Hashana is "leshana tova tikhatevu vetichatemu" - may you be registered and sealed for a good year. During the days of awe, the traditional greeting used by most observant Jews is gmar chatima tova - may you finish with a good seal..  [September]

Yom Kippur  - The Day of Atonement climaxes the ten days of repentance. It is the holiest day of the year. Observant Jews neither eat nor drink for a full day. They spend a large part of the day in prayer asking for forgiveness for past wrong doing and resolving to improve in the following year. Yom Kippur is an extremely solemn holiday. In Israel automobile travel, TV and radio are stopped and only essential services are maintained. [September]

Sukkot ("Tabernacles") -  A harvest festival that also commemorates the forty years the children of Israel spent in the Sinai desert on the way from Egypt to Israel.  Temporary huts (singular "suka," plural "Sukkoth") are built and used during this festival for meals and other family activities. The open roof is covered with branches and decorated with fruits. Religious Jews must have a lulav and an etrog to bless for Sukkot. The etrog is a citron. The lulav is a sort of wand made up of  a palm branch, myrtle and willow (arava), which together make up the "four species" of plants that must be represented.

Sukkoth,  Passover and Shavuoth ("Weeks') were the three most important holidays in ancient Israel, since a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was mandatory on these holidays.  The last day of Sukkoth is Hoshanah Rabba. It is a Sabbath day on which no work is done, in honor of the willow, the hoshana. According to some traditions, the book of life is sealed on Hoshanah Rabba. The day after Sukkot (two days abroad) is Shmini Atsereth, which coincides with Simchat Torah, described below. [September/October]

Simkhat Torah. - The rejoicing of the Torah immediately follows Sukkot and celebrates the end of the annual cycle reading the Torah and its immediate re-commencement. All the scrolls of Torah, followed by the children singing and dancing, are paraded seven times around the synagogues. [October]

Hannukah -  Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees in 164 BCE won it back from the Syrian Greeks. For the eight evenings of the festival, candles are lit on a special eight-branched candlestick, one on the first evening, two on the second and so on. [December]. More about Hannuka

Muslim Festivals

Islam follows a lunar calendar that is not corrected according to the solar calandar. Therefore, holidays occur at different times throughout the year. Approximate dates are for this decade.

Isra wa Al - Miraj-   Celebrates the journey of Mohammed from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to Heaven in a night. On the journey, the command to pray five times a day was given. The Dome of the Rock Mosque (Al Aqsa) now marks the rock in Jerusalem from which Mohammed ascended. [October]

Lailat ul- Barat or Shab-e-Barat -  Also known as the "Night of Fortune" or Night of emancipation. In Persian it is called Shab-e-Barat, in Arabic, Lailat ul Barat. Two weeks before Ramadan, Muslims in some countries seek forgiveness for their sins. According to their belief, it is on this night that a person's destiny is fixed for the coming year. Most Muslims spend the night in prayers and Zikirs, so that Allah will forgive their sins. Housewives prepare sweet dishes and distribute bread to the poor. The holiday is often concluded with fireworks and celebration. Shab-e-Barat takes place on the fourteenth of Shaban according to the Arabic calendar. [October]

Ramadan -  The month of fasting from dawn to sunset every day. Fasting includes the prohibition of all foods, drinks and smoking. It is an experience of self-discipline and enables all to experience the deprivation of poverty. The atmosphere is one of solemnity rather than sadness. [November]. More about Ramadan

Lailut Ul-Qadr-  "The Night of Power" commemorates the start of the revelation of the Qur'an and so Muslims will spend the night in praying and studying the Qur'an. It is celebrated towards the end of Ramadan, most usually on the 27th day. [November]

Eid El Fitr- This happy festival marks the end of the fast of Ramadan. The fast is often broken at the mosque followed by a festive meal at home.  Giving charity is an essential feature of the day and children are given presents. The accent is on community and togetherness. [December]

Eid-El-Adha.- Four days which commemorate the end of the Hajj Pilgrimage to Mecca. All over the Muslims sacrifice animals (Like Abraham did in substitute for his son- Muslim version his son Ishmail). A third of the meat is distributed to the poor, the rest is shared with relatives. [January in 2005]

Al-Hijra (New Year's Day) - Commemorates the Hijjra or migration of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in 622CE, which led to the establishment of the Muslim Community. Gifts are exchanged and stories told of Mohammed and his companions. [April]

Ashura- Shiites commemorate the killing of Hussain, son of Ali at Karbala in what is now Iraq. Hussain was a grandson of Mohammed through his son-in-law Ali and is considered by Shi'ites to have been of the legitimate line of the Caliphs. They fast, mourn and re-enact the story.  Sunni Muslims also fast on this day after the custom of Mohammed himself. [March-April]

Maulid Nabi Birthday of Mohammed) - The day is celebrated with a procession, stories and lectures on the life of Mohammed. [June]

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