Festivals and fasts

views updated

Festivals and fasts. Festivals are celebrations, usually having an ordered and ritualized (see RITUAL) character. Festivals arise from the fact that ‘no man is an island’, or more exactly, from the fact that no one can live in isolation on an island in the midst of life: we are selves in a field of selves, requiring each other for the very process of life. Festivals give communal expression to the meaning of that process, in a shared affirmation of value and commitment. So universal is the religious fact of celebration that Durkheim was able to make it a quintessential feature of religion itself: individuals experience the social as a fact over and above their own individuality, and therefore recognize this factual reality outside themselves in symbolic forms and ritual actions.

In that context, festivals manifest the demands of social existence in many different ways. At the simplest level, they affirm the worth of individuals in a social context (e.g. birthday parties, anniversaries). They mark rites of passage; they express the dependence of human life on food and water, which are themselves uncertain in the context of the passing of seasons or the unpredictability of hunting; they mark occasions in the history of the community; they celebrate the epiphanies of power or grace which have offered the transformation of life in the direction of hope, especially when these have come from God or from the source of life itself—e.g. ti'en, Heaven, or the Tao. Such festivals are marked by trust and thanksgiving; and the dramatic nature of the celebration ties drama and the theatre to ritual in ways which have not yet been separated in India or China.

But festival cannot be divorced from fast. Fasts express the public recognition of unworthiness—to receive benefits, for example, or to participate in the community itself; or again, fasting may express a human desire to move beyond a present circumstance into some better outcome: little of worth is achieved without cost. Fasting may be isolated and specific, or they may be prolonged over a regular period each year: sawm, observed by Muslims during the daylight hours of the month of Ramaḍān, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Fasting may equally be a form of protest against perceived injustice or tyranny, as it may also be a form of preparation for some endeavour. The preparation of Jesus for his ministry sent him for ‘forty days and forty nights’ into the wilderness—a preparation which was imitated by Christians during the seasons of (originally) Advent and of Lent.

The conservative importance of festivals is precisely what seems negative about them to reformers. There is, in this respect, a constant tension in religions, exemplified in the Jewish prophets and their protest against relying on the proper observance of festivals and fasts as the definition of appropriate behaviour before God. Yet even religious reformers find that the human need for festival and fast has to be satisfied.


Among Jews, the festivals and fasts (following a lunar calendar) are a mixture of agricultural and New Year observances, combined with those which commemorate the history of God's dealings with his people. The days of festival are known as (in the singular) yom tov, ‘a good day’. Those commanded in the Pentateuch include the three pilgrim festivals (Passover, Shavu'ot, and Sukkot), the New Year (Rosh ha-Shanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and the first day of the lunar month (Rosh Ḥodesh). Later festivals are the feast of Esther (Purim), the feast of Lights (Ḥanukkah), and various memorial days. Fixed fast days were first mentioned by the prophet Zechariah (ch. 8. 19); 10 Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem; 17 Tammuz, the breaking of the walls; 9 Av, the destruction of the Temple, and 3 Tishri, the assassination of Gedaliah. The other two fasts of the Jewish calendar are 13 Adar, Fast of Esther, and 14 Nisan, Fast of the Firstborn (commemorating the ten plagues in Egypt).


Christian festivals follow an annual cycle, beginning with the advent of Christ and his birth, and tracing his life on earth: they culminate in his ascension and status in the Holy and Undivided Trinity. But at the same time, they commemorate and celebrate faithful followers of Christ, the saints, martyrs and Doctors of the Church. Fasting is designed to strengthen the spiritual life by overcoming more immediate attractions of ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ (Book of Common Prayer). The observance of regular fasting began with weekly fast days, Wednesday and Friday. To these were added the fast of Lent; in the E., three further forty-day fasts throughout the year; and in the W., vigil fasts and ember days. The only two fast days now are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Christian feasts are of three main kinds: (i) Sunday, (ii) movable feasts, and (iii) immovable feasts. The movable feasts (Easter, and Pentecost seven weeks later) vary in date because of their origin in the Jewish lunar calendar. See also CALENDAR.


Among Muslims (who follow a lunar calendar), the major festivals and fasts are linked to the command of the Qur'ān or to the life of Muḥammad. They are Ra's al-ʿĀm (New Year, 1 Muḥarram); ‘Āshūrā’ (10 Muḥarram, for Sunnis a day of blessing, but for Shiʿites the anniversary of the martyrdom of al-Husain); Mawlid al-Nabī (12 Rabīʿ al-Awwal, Muḥammad's birthday); Laylat al-Miʿrāj (27 Rajab, the Night Journey); Laylat al-Barāʿah (15 Shaʿbān, the night on which sins are forgiven and the destiny of the next year is fixed); Ramaḍān, a month of fasting during daylight hours which includes on the 10th the commemoration of the Exodus, and on the 27th, Laylat al-Qadr, the night of the descent of the Qur'ān; ʿĪd al-Fiṭr (1 Shawwal, feast of fast-breaking); ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā (10 Dhu -ʾl-Ḥijjah, feast of sacrifice, commemorating Ibrahīm's (Abraham's) willingness to sacrifice his son; 8–10 are the days of pilgrimage to Mecca); ʿĪd al-Ghadīr (18 Dhu-ʾl-Ḥijjah, Shiʿites only, the designation by Muḥammad of ʿAlī as his successor).


It is said that Hindus have a festival (vrata, celebration) for every day of the year. That is a serious underestimate. P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra, v/1, pp. 253–452, lists more than a thousand; and in addition, each temple will have its own local vrata (of which the pulling of the chariots (ratha) of Jagannātha is simply one example). Major festivals which are likely to be observed by most Hindus are Kṛṣṇajayānti (Janamaśtami, during Śrāvaṇa, Kṛṣṇa's birthday, celebrated at midnight after a day of fasting); Rakhi Bandhan (full moon of the same month, when friendships are renewed); Ganeṣa Catūrthī (during Bhadra, when the instruments of work are placed before Ganeṣa to evoke his blessing); Dassera (the first half of the month Aśvina, a series of festivals, including Navarātri, the first nine days leading to Daśahrā— i.e. Durgā Pūjā; Dīvālī or Dipavālī (second half of Aśvina, the festival of lights); Nāgapañcami (mainly in S. India, the reverence of the cobra as guardian); Śivarātri (during Magha, devotion to Śiva and anointing of the liṅga; Holī (during Phalguṇa, a carnival of reversals and riot).


Among Buddhists, festivals depend on the country and style of Buddhism: since Buddhism absorbed rather than obliterated the customs of the countries into which it spread, the accumulation of festivals makes it impossible to list them. However, certain major days are held by Theravādin or Mahāyāna Buddhists. Among Theravādins, the full moon dominates. New Year is observed with ceremonies of cleansing. Full moon in the month Vesakha is the major celebration (Vesakha Pūjā) of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana (nirupadhiśesa-nirvana). On the next full moon (in Śri Lankā) is Poson, celebrating the arrival of Buddhism in Śri Lankā; on the next full moon is Āsālha Pūjā, celebrating the Buddha's renunciation and First Sermon, and marking the beginning of the three month rain-period (Vassa) during which laymen may join the saṅgha, and during which the bhikṣus stay in their monasteries. Mahāyāna adds many local festivals, but most Mahāyāna developments recognize the anniversaries of the birth, enlightenment, and parinirvana of the Buddha as separate occasions.


Jains have a large calendar (when local celebrations are included) which is complicated by the fact that few festivals are celebrated on the same day by Digambaras and Śvetāmbaras. An exception is Mahāvīra Jayanti, the birthday of Mahāvīra, which is celebrated on the 13th of the bright half of Caitra. Otherwise, the same feast or fast is observed at different times (e.g. Jñanapañcami honours scripture among the Śvetāmbaras, Śrutapañcami among the Digambaras) or the same goal is reached by different occasions: thus Paryushan (Paryūsana) among Śvetāmbaras is an eight-day period of penitence, confession, and effort to accomplish what should have been done during the year; the near equivalent for Digambaras is Daśalakśanaparvan, which starts exactly as Paryushan ends. The ritual year ends with Divālī, but the lights are reinterpreted as a commemoration of the lights lit to acknowledge the death of Mahāvīra.


Sikh festivals are tied particularly to the Gurūs and to the founding of the khālsā. Thus Grpurbs commemorate the births, accessions, or deaths of the Gurūs; and even those which have been received from Hinduism have been adapted: thus the lights on Divālī celebrate the release of Guru Hargobind on this day in 1619, and Hola-Mohalla (Holi) was given a specifically Sikh character by Guru Gobind Siṅgh in 1680. Of particular importance is Baisakhi, commemorating the founding of the khālsā in 1699.


For Zoroastrians there are six seasonal festivals (gahambars) which together with New Year (No Ruz) constitute an annual cycle of religious obligation for all Zoroastrians. Along with the sudre/kusti prayers (Naujote), they are in fact the only compulsory practices of the religion. They exhibit the traditional spirit of joyful worship of Ahura Mazda (misery is a sin in Zoroastrianism), focusing on hospitality, the sharing of food and drink in which everyone has the religious obligation to undertake charitable giving to others, even if that be simply their labours. The last five days of the year are dedicated to each of the traditional five divisions of the Gāthās (Avesta) and are therefore known as ‘Gatha days’. Other religious days of the year observed are Pateti (Parsi name for No Roz), when the Patet or prayer of repentance is recited seeking forgiveness for the past. Khordadsal celebrates the birthday of Zoroaster and Zarthoshtno Diso his death. The time of greatest merrymaking among diaspora Zoroastrians is probably Jamshedi No Roz which is generally celebrated on 21 Mar.


Since Japanese religion is ‘a brocade of religious traditions’, the festivals (matsuri) of all the religions involved will be a part of the Japanese scene. But there are also annual festivals which are more specifically Japanese, and which, in general (at least until recently) are observed by a large proportion of the population. Of the annual observances (nenjū gyōgi), the following are important: Shōgatsu (New Year, for about one week from 1 Jan., prepared for by cleaning homes and putting up a straw rope, shimenawa, symbolizing the binding of the home to divine power); Koshōgatsu (lesser New Year, following the lunar calendar, 15 Jan.); Setsubun (the turning of the seasons, held on the last day of winter, with the driving out of evil spirits from the home (‘Oni wa soto’)); Hana matsuri (3 Mar., the doll festival, associating the girls of the family with illustrious figures); Haru no shanichi (the day for the veneration of the protective deity, or kami; the full veneration, Aki no shanichi, is held at the autumn equinox); Haru no higan (festival of the spring equinox; but because higan means, for Buddhists, ‘the further shore’, people visit their homes and ancestral graves; Aki no higan is held at the autumn equinox); Hana matsuri (8 Apr., the festival of flowers, observed by ascending a hill and gathering wild flowers, which, when they are brought home, lead the mountain deities (yama no kami) to follow); Tango no sekku (5 May, festival for celebrating the growth and achievements of boys); Suijin matsuri (15 June and 1 Dec., festivals of the kami of water, to seek their protection against the vindictive goryō); Tanabata (star festival, when craftsmen seek improvement in their skills by writing poems and floating them away on bamboo leaves on streams); Bon (sometimes O-bon, 13–16 July, feast for the dead, when the spirits of ancestors are welcomed back into the home and visits are made to attend to graves); Tsukimi (viewing the moon, 15 Aug. according to the lunar calendar, with offerings of the first-fruits of rice).