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A Season Full of Holy Days
This year autumn is full of celebrations, festivals, and sacred commemorations in a number of religious traditions. As the weather turns and harvest time approaches, many people of faith are turning their minds to things of the spirit. Here we highlight upcoming festivals in the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu traditions.
Jews are celebrating the High Holy Days, which started with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 24 and conclude with Yom Kippur on October 4. Known in Hebrew as the “Days of Awe,” these ten days are among the most solemn in the Jewish year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, celebrates the creation of the world and is traditionally believed to be the time when God inscribes the fate of every living thing for the upcoming year in the book of life. It is a time for self-reflection when one works on one’s relationship with God, oneself, and others. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the most holy day in the Jewish calendar. On this day atonement for sins and faults is granted to the Jewish people—but only when individuals have performed the difficult work of confession and repentance. Jews fast for 24 hours on this day, refraining from all food and drink.For Muslims this year, this is the season of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all Muslims financially and physically able to undertake it. Whether on Hajj or not, all Muslims celebrate Eid ul-Adha, which falls this year on October 4th and 5th. Eid ul-Adha, or “Festival of the Sacrifice,” honors the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his young first-born son Ismail (Ishmael) as an act of submission to God, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. On the day of Eid Muslims dress in new clothes and gather for special morning prayers followed by all-day celebrations. They also may sacrifice a domestic animal, dividing the meat three ways: one third for the family, one third for relatives and friends, and one third for the poor and needy. This festival thus enacts the concern for the poor that the Qur’an repeatedly inculcates.
Christians, too, have a joyous commemoration in this season, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4. Francis, from a wealthy family in medieval Italy, was led to renounce his wealth as a result of an intense spiritual encounter with Jesus and embarked on a life of poverty and total dependence on God, emulating the joy and hospitality of his Savior. He soon attracted followers, and the Franciscan family is one of the largest religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church; there are Franciscans in the Anglican and other churches also. Especially relevant today is Francis as an icon of environmental concern. He preached not only to human being but to birds who, according to stories told him, showed by their actions that they paid him close attention. He is also credited with teaching a wolf who was ravaging a town the ways of peace, leading the townspeople to provide for the animal for the rest of his life.
The exuberant Hindu festival of Navratri strikes a different tone from the observances just mentioned, but it shares with them a celebration of creation and divine energy. It is devoted to the Divine Mother Durga as a manifestation of Shakti, the ultimate creative energy in the universe. Extending over nine days (the meaning of Navratri in Sanskrit), it is celebrated in many different ways in different parts of India. In the north, it is marked by fasting, but also, especially in Gujarat, by sacred dancing. Dancing is a major part of the Navratri celebrations in other parts of India also and among the Indian diaspora in the United States and elsewhere. Most people eat only fruit during the nine days and avoid all meat or fish. There are, however, special Navratri dishes that make a special occasion of these restricted meals.