Feasts or festivals are periodically recurring occasions for the expression of religious joy. Generally they occur annually, but weekly, monthly, and other celebrations are also common.
Pagan Feasts. In remotest antiquity and in primitive societies in general, virtually all feasts are religious in character. They express, on the one hand, a natural desire to rejoice in the blessings of life and nature and to escape briefly the arduous tasks of daily life, and, on the other hand, a striving toward the gods, who have given the gifts of life and nature, and an effort to unite with the world of the divine. The widespread custom of feasting in honor of the dead clearly reflects the role of the feast as a link with another world. Likewise the ritual, symbolism, and mythology of feasts enable the celebrants to participate in the world of mythical origins conceived of as an eternal present. The stories of the creation of the world or the epics of gods and heroes, for example, are ritually recited or reenacted at feasts, which thus serve, not only as bonds of society, but as instruments for handing on religious traditions. Feasts are the external manifestation of religion itself in every culture, and they very often include sacrifice as a prominent part of their ritual.
Feasts may be classified according to their object. Those originating in individual or family life include the celebrations of birth or name-giving, initiation, marriage, and death or burial. Others center about cosmic events: the change of seasons, the appearance of the moon, the sun, and the stars, and especially the new year, which is almost universally observed, though not at a fixed time in all cultures. Closely connected with this category are feasts allied with phases of agricultural life, especially harvest festivals, and those that depend on hunting and fishing seasons and the like. Finally, there are feasts honoring various gods; some of these result from former cosmic or agricultural associations, and others commemorate historical events in the life of a god or prophet or religious founder.
In the developed cultures of antiquity one finds highly complex calendars of feasts that often clearly reveal the connection between agriculture and religious life. This is especially true of Mesopotamia, where numerous monthly and yearly feasts were observed through the centuries. The principal one was the new year festival, in later times the 12-day Babylonian Akîtu, with its elaborate ritual of recitation of the creation epic, sacred marriage and fertility drama, public penitence for the past, and divination of the future. The ancient Egyptian feasts were characterized by the cult of the dead and by processions bearing statues of the god being honored, often majestic processions on the Nile River. The festivals of
Greece were originally agricultural in character and purely local; in classical times they honored various gods, and eventually some of the Athenian festivals, such as the Dionysiac, spread throughout the country. Especially significant features were the drama and the athletic games. As the traditional Roman religion acquired an increasingly formalized character, its feasts tended to become secular observances, while foreign religions, such as the Syrian, Greek, or Egyptian mysteries, and eventually Christianity, expressed the religious sentiments of the people.
Feasts in Israel. For the principal Hebrew feasts in Old Testament times there are several festival calendars in the Pentateuch and scattered allusions elsewhere in the Bible. The calendars, from the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly traditions, are found respectively in Ex 34.18–23; Ex 23.14–17; Dt 16.1–17; Lv 23 and the sacrificial legislation based on this in Num 28.9–29.39. Certain important additional Jewish feasts are of later origin.
The weekly and monthly feasts are the sabbath and the New-Moon Day (see new-moon feast, hebrew). Although of uncertain origin, the weekly day of rest was as old as the worship of Yahweh and occupied a very important place in Israelite life because it commemorated the Covenant with Yahweh. The first day of each lunar month was also celebrated with rest from work and special sacrifices. Only the New-Moon Day of the 7th (formerly the 1st) month retained special solemnity in later times, and some of its features were incorporated into the late Jewish New Year's Day, Rosh ha-Shanah, celebrated on the same date but not mentioned in the Old Testaments.
The oldest annual Israelite feasts are the three great pilgrimages (haggîm ) to the central religious sanctuary—Unleavened Bread, Weeks or Pentecost, and Tabernacles or Booths (see pilgrimages, 1). All three are of agricultural origin and were probably adopted from the Canaanites after the Israelite conquest. All three were later historicized, i.e., were associated with events in Israel's history that were then commemorated annually: the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, the giving of the Law, and the wilderness journey, respectively. In the Deuteronomic reform the three pilgrimages were centralized at the Jerusalem Temple and some time later were given definite dates. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, observed for seven days at the beginning of the barley harvest in spring, from the 15th to the 21st of Nisan, was, around the time of the Exile, combined with the Feast of passover, which took place on the night of the 14th of Nisan. Passover may be even older than Unleavened Bread in Israel's history; it was a nomadic sacrifice that had probably been celebrated privately at home in the time when the earliest festival calendars were drawn up, for they do not mention it. The Feast of Weeks, or of the wheat harvest, was celebrated for one day only, seven weeks after Unleavened Bread. (see pentecost.) The Feast of Booths, at first the most prominent of the three, was the autumnal harvest festival, originally called the Ingathering. It was observed for seven (later eight) days beginning with the 15th of Tishri. It takes its name from the huts erected in the vineyards and orchards in the harvest season; these were ultimately identified with the tents used as dwelling places in the Exodus sojourn in the desert. see booths (tabernacles), feast of.
The solemn Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, was observed with sacrifices, penance, and fasting five days before Booths and is better classified as a fast day than as a feast. It originated very late in Old Testament times but embodied some ancient rites. see atonement, day of (yom kippur).
Of the later feasts, two deserve mention because they have survived till the 20th century. The Feast of the Dedication, or Hanukkah, was instituted on the 25th of Kislev, 164 b.c., when Judas Maccabee reconsecrated the altar of the Temple that had been profaned three years before (see dedication of the temple, feast of). The story is told in 1 Maccabees 4.36–59 and 2 Maccabees 10.1–8. The origin of the Feast of purim, or Lots, celebrated on the 14th and 15th of Adar, is attributed by the Book of Esther to the escape of the Persian Jews from the plot of the wicked Haman. This is not a historical account, however, although the feast, very likely of pagan or at least secular origin in the East, cannot be linked with certainty to specific Persian or Babylonian practice.
Early Christian Feasts. The earliest Christians did not immediately dissociate themselves from the observance of the Jewish feasts. Many references in the New Testament indicate that Jesus and His disciples, as well as the early Palestinian Christian communities, observed the Sabbath and the major annual festivals. This observance had been invested by Christ with a new dimension, however, since He proclaimed His own superiority to the Law and oriented it to the eschatological events. It remained for Saint Paul to proclaim the Christian's independence from the Jewish festival calendar (Colossians 2.16), and with the fall of Jerusalem and the growth of the Church outside Palestine, the Judeo-Christian festival observance ceased except among sectarian groups.
The earliest feast in the Christian calendar was the lord's day, sunday, which is well attested in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., Acts of the Apostles 20.7; Revelation 1.10; Didache 14; Ignatius, Magn. 9.1). It commemorated the Resurrection and was observed with the celebration of the Eucharist; it was not connected in its origins with the Jewish Sabbath. The first annual feast to be observed was Easter, which initially coincided with the Jewish Passover festival but did not retain any of the Jewish meaning except symbolically (see easter and its cycle). The great easter controversy about the exact date of Easter and the manner of calculating it lasted from the 2d to the 4th century, and in some parts of the world until much later. The Council of Nicaea (325) decided in favor of the Sunday after the vernal equinox, and this date was gradually adopted throughout the Western Church.
The Feast of Pentecost also persisted in the Christian calendar, but again totally dissociated from its Jewish connotations. It commemorated the events of Acts of the Apostles ch. 2; by the 3d century it was a well established observance. The Feast of the ascension of jesus christ, 40 days after Easter, is well attested in writings of the 4th century.
The liturgical year in the roman rite, as known today, came into existence only gradually once the Easter and Christmas feasts had been established. There is 3d-century evidence that the Epiphany (January6) was celebrated in Alexandria as the feast of Christ's baptism (see epiphany, feast of). The commemoration of the birthday of the Lord on December 25 spread from Rome throughout the Western Church from the 4th century, and Epiphany remained as the commemoration of the Magi incident recounted in Matthew 2.1–12. (see christmas and its cycle.)
Feasts honoring the saints, including marian feasts, came into general use still later. Some of the oldest Marian feasts originated in the Eastern Church and spread to the West in the 6th and 7th centuries. Saints' feasts are rooted in the very early cult of the martyrs and are attested from the 3d and 4th centuries. (see saints, devotion to the.) Until the end of the Middle Ages the number of Christian feasts grew to considerable proportions; the tendency of modern times has been to reduce the number, both of feasts involving the obligations of Mass and abstinence from work and of other feasts often of only local importance.
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[g. w. macrae]