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ASU religious studies faculty on the global springtime festivals you may not know about


Blooming pink flowers on a tress branch against a bright blue sky.

Photo courtesy Pexels

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March 08, 2023

Spring is coming, and with it, the idea of flowers, picnics and new beginnings. It's also a time for holidays and festivals. 

There are many different celebrations from around the world that take place near the spring equinox. To learn more about them, where they originated and their cultural significance, we turned to the religious studies faculty members in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

Holi

Holi is one of the major Hindu festivals. It is celebrated on the full moon of the Hindu month of Phālguna, which falls in March and thus corresponds with the many spring festivals celebrated around the world.

“The festival is associated with the triumph of good over evil and commemorates in particular the victory of god Vishnu over the demon Hiranyakashipu,” said Alexander Henn, professor of religious studies. “The ceremonies are popular in all of India and have a typical carnivalesque character.”

A traditional celebration consists of bonfires and dancing around decorated poles to music from drums, cymbals and horns. It is popularly known as the festival of colors in modern celebrations, but it is also called the festival of love and is highlighted by symbols of love and fertility.

“Today, the festivities are celebrated by people dancing and frolicking in droves in the streets, smearing and drenching each other with colored powder and water and indulging in food, drink and joy,” said Henn.

Passover

Passover is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which is the first month of Aviv, or spring. The holiday commemorates the enslaved Jewish peoples’ exodus from Egypt.

“The central ritual would be the slaughtering, the preparation and the eating of the Passover lamb, or the Passover sacrifice, which was basically done by family units,” said Joel Gereboff, associate professor of religious studies. “Today, the central element has become eating matzah as part of Passover observance, which is bread without any levain, such as yeast.”

The story of Passover comes from the final plague in the 10 plagues of Egypt, in which Jewish people sacrificed a lamb and smeared its blood over their door so the angel of death would pass over their home and would only take the lives of the first born of Egyptian households. 

“Passover differs from many Jewish holidays in that it is very family centered,” Gereboff said. “Every family is different, but many will come together and tell the story of Passover and will cook and eat this big meal together. Food plays a major role.”

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr 

Eid al-Fitr, which means “the festival of breaking fast,” is celebrated to mark the end of an entire month of fasting during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.

“Fasting, or sawm, during Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the others being the declaration of faith, shahada, ritual prayer, salat, almsgiving, zakat and pilgrimage to Mecca, hajj,” said Han Hsien Liew, assistant professor of religious studies. “During this month, all able-bodied Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset every day.”

According to the Islamic tradition, the holiday began after the Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina, after escaping persecution by his tribesmen, the Quraysh, in Mecca. It is typically celebrated by Muslims visiting family and friends, dressing in their best clothes, cooking up feasts in the evening and offering charity.

Mosques will also hold special prayer services to commemorate the festival.

“Eid al-Fitr is also known as the ‘minor festival,’ the ‘major festival’ being Eid al-Adha, or the festival of sacrifice, celebrated about two months later,” Liew said. “During Eid al-Adha, animals such as cattle, sheep or goats are ritually sacrificed and a huge feast is prepared from the meat for family and friends. Despite being referred to as the ‘minor festival,’ Eid al-Fitr is usually more festive than Eid al-Adha due to the month of fasting that precedes it.”

Vesak

Vesak is celebrated by Buddhists to commemorate the Buddha’s birth, attainment of enlightenment and death. 

According to Huaiyu Chen, associate professor of religious studies, the Vesak celebration originated in Sri Lanka in 1950, at the first conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. 

It is usually celebrated on the day of the full moon in May in South and Southeast Asia, but in East Asia, it is sometimes celebrated on April 8 on the lunar calendar. 

While the holiday is celebrated differently across Buddhist cultures, a typical celebration consists of Buddists gathering in temples.

“(The Buddists) offer flowers, incenses, candles, lamps and sing hymns paying homage to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,” Chen said. “Buddhists will eat vegetarian food and practice releasing lives, such as birds, animals, fish and turtles, attend Dharma talks by monks and observe precepts.”

Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha and the study of Buddhists. Sangha is the building of a community through Buddhist ideals and values.

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