Saturday, March 16, 2013

Guide to World Holidays

A number of people have responded to some of my posts, notably my essay on "Choosing to Have a Happy Holiday," by saying they had not heard of some of the holidays I mentioned! Certainly people can get by in the modern world without knowing too much about Saturnalia, but it probably behooves most educated people to know about the holidays being observed by their neighbors, and so I have decided to start this guide to world holidays. I also hope to reveal some interesting things people might not have known about more familiar holidays.

Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17): This religious holiday devoted to the patron saint of Ireland is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. It has been an official church feast day for about 400 years but, in more recent times, has also evolved into a more secular celebration of Irish culture in general that is observed with parades, wearing green clothing, eating, and, naturally, drinking. And, for those who care about such things, participation in it does grant a one-day dispensation on the strictures of Lent for those observing it! Saint Patrick, a 5th century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop, has a number of claims to fame that warrant such revelry in his memory, the main one being the prominent role he played in spreading Christianity throughout the Emerald Isles. He is also credited with banishing all serpents from Ireland, driving them into the sea and to their deaths after they had the impertinence to attack him during his own Lenten rigors. The fact that there are no snakes in Ireland today suggests that he did, in fact, do a pretty good job in this regard.

Songkran (April 13-15): This holiday coincides with the New Year of many calendars of South and Southeast Asia and is celebrated as the traditional start of the New Year in Thailand. This was originally a moveable feast with a date set by astrological calculation but is now fixed; if its days fall on a weekend, the missed days off are taken on the weekdays immediately following. Songkran falls in the hottest time of the year in Thailand, at the end of the dry season. Songkran has traditionally been celebrated as the New Year for many centuries, is believed to have been adapted from an Indian festival, and is observed nationwide. The most famous Songkran celebrations, however, are still in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where it continues for at least six days. It has also become a party for foreigners and an additional reason for many to visit Thailand.

New Year's Day (January 1). Celebrated on the first day of January throughought much of the world, this day marks the beginnning of the new calendar year. Strange as it may be to conceive of, however, this was not always the case, and only started to be observed on January 1 in the English-speaking world between the years A.D. 1600 and 1761! Up until that point, the start of the New Year was generally observed on March 25, and going back into the Middle Ages a number of other dates were used, including March 1, September 1, Christmas Day, and Easter. Many Catholics may also recognize January 1 as the day Jesus was circumcised.

Epiphany (Mostly January 6 in 2013). This Christian feast day celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. In the Western Christian tradition, Ephiphany mainly commemorates the visitation the baby Jesus by the Magi, symbolizing Jesus' physical manifestation to the Gentiles, and is generally celebrated either on January 6 as a Holy Day of Obligation or on the first Sunday after January 1. In the Eastern Christians tradition, the holiday celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, recognized as his revelation to the world as the Son of God, and is generally celebrated on January 19. In certain countries, however, Epiphany is celebrated on different days (e.g., January 9 in Columbia).

Seijin no Hi/Coming of Age Day (Japan; January 14 in 2013): Events of this sort date to at least A.D. 714 in Japan and were officially established as an annual holiday in 1948; since 2000, Coming of Age Day has been observed on the second Monday in January. Its purpose is to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the age of majority which, in Japan, is 20 years old, and when new adults are legally allowed to vote, drive, and smoke. Festivities include ceremonies at local government offices and after-parties among family and friends.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 21 in 2013). This U.S. federal holiday marks the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the U.S. civil rights movement during the 1960s. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's Jan. 15 birthday. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 and it was first observed on January 20, 1986. Some states initially resisted observing the holiday as such, combining it with other holidays or giving it alternative names, and it was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

Republic Day (India; January 26): Republic Day is a national holiday that marks the adoption of the Constitution of India and the transition of the nation from a British Dominion to a republic on January 26, 1950. It is one of the three national holidays celebrated in India. On this day, the country finally realized the dream of Mahatma Gandhi and the numerous freedom fighters who, fought for and sacrificed their lives for the Independence of their country. It is marked by speeches, parades, and ceremonies, especially in the national capital of New Delhi. It is worth noting, for those who might not have been aware of this, that India -- and not the United States -- is today the largest republic in the world!

Chinese New Year (February 10 in 2013): Also called the Lunar New Year and the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. While it is particularly celebrated in mainland China and Taiwan, it is also observed by expatriate communities worldwide in countries that include the United States, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month, Pinyin, in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th, a day known as Lantern Festival. Because its observance is based on a lunar calendar, it falls each year on a different day of the Western calendar. Vietnamese New Year, or Tết, is based on the same calendar and falls on the same day as Chinese New Year. Each year of the Chinese calendar is said to be influenced by a particular sign of the zodiac, and 2013 is the Year of the Snake. People born under the sign of the Snake are said to be especially acute, attractive, aware, contemplative, cunning, graceful, introspective, intuitive, private, proud, refined, unflappable, vain, simultaneously dark and exciting, but not particularly good at communication, somewhat scheming, and often vicious.

Shrove Tuesday (February 12 in 2013): Better known to many in the United States as Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday"), this is the tradition in Roman Catholic and Anglican societies of celebrating the day before the start of the austere season of Lent with eating, drinking, and costumed revelry. It is celebrated througout the Western world and also known variously as Carnival in many places (e.g., Italy, Brazil) and Fasching in Germany. The period of celebration leading up to this day, which ends abruptly at midnight, varies from place to place and can be a day, a week, or even a few months. As a point of commentary, it bears mentioning that holidays like this are at least implicitly intended to let normal people periodically blow off steam. So, while Mardis Gras is often presented as an event created for party animals this is not really the case, as the most hedonistic can carouse whenever they want and it is the people who do not do so regularly who need observances like this one. Holidays like this have, in any case, been observed since time immemorial in most societies and subcultures that eschew such celebrations simply contribute to the misery of their members and drive them to partake of their pleasures more covertly.

Saint Valentine's Day (February 14): Generally known simply as Valentine's Day, this secular holiday is observed in more than 100 countries worldwide and is named in honor of two or three early Christian saints. This holiday was established by Pope Gelasius I in A.D. 496 and acquired its romantic connotations during the Middle Ages and, by the 1400s, was observed by the exchange of flowers, candy, and cards between lovers. Its name and history notwithstanding, however, Valentine's Day is no longer observed as a religious holiday, and the Catholic Church removed it from its list of official holidays in 1969. It also bears mentioning that the figure of Cupid, the winged child associated with Valentine's Day, is in fact the ancient Roman god of desire, pointing once again to the pagan roots of a seemingly modern holiday.


  1. Neat. Dont suppose you have a post on the varoius "Christian" Holidays that actually have much deeper non-Christian heritage?

  2. "Anonymous," you can see what is on this site as well as anyone! We do not have a post of the sort you are talking about but you are welcome to present the ideas you are discussing in a comment to this post -- and, if what you have to say is interesting or lucid enough, we would be glad to give you permission to start new posts. Either way, you need to post under your own name here and cannot hide behind a mask of anonymity; discussion of moral issues requires moral courage, and not even that much if all you are doing is commenting on the evolution of holidays.

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  4. Why are Churches now obligated to spell-out 'holy' during any service they offer? Find out, at:

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