Religious Holidays

One of my family’s favorite things is to celebrate religious holidays from around the world. It started with Muslim and Jewish holidays, and we’ve slowly added other holidays. Here’s our current schedule:

Jan/Feb- Chinese New Year (along with Vietnamese, Mongolian, etc)
March 21- Nawruz (Zoroastrian new year)
April/May- Holy Week and Easter
May (first full moon of the month)- Vesak (celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha)
July 13-15- O Bon (Shinto)
Aug/Sep- Paryushana (Jain)
Sep/Oct- Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot
Oct/Nov- Diwali (Sikh and Hindu)
various Muslim holidays whenever they fall

Our plan hasn’t been perfected yet; Diwali is a bit tricky because Sikhs and Hindus are rather different. Since I don’t know any Buddhists or Jains, we’re not very good at Vesak and Paryushana. But it’s been a fun experience for our family and we like to invite others to join us. It’s a simple way to teach my young children about other religions before they’re ready to formally study them. But I’m careful to not let each holiday just be a party with good food. I picked holidays with significant religious (well, Chinese New Year might not quite apply) meaning because the goal here is to learn about other religions, and not so much about other cultures, although that happens too.

Are there holidays from other religions that you celebrate, or that you’ve celebrated in the past?

22 comments for “Religious Holidays

  1. Cool list, Erica! I suspected that our families had this in common. We love holidays too, and use them as occasions to teach our kids (and ourselves) more about our own and others’ religious heritage. Though I must admit that, often, the “party with good food” aspect predominates. Perhaps that is a consequence of the fact that our choice in holidays to celebrate is at least as much national/cultural as it is religious; celebrating St. Andrew’s or King Kamehameha Day usually doesn’t lead to moral reflection so much as culinary opportunities. Still, we try–and anyway, I tend to believe that if you dig back into the traditions of any cultural holiday, you’ll eventually hit religious bedrock.

    Looking just as the holidays on our current list that have some genuine cultural/religious aspect to them, I see Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Good Friday, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, King Kamehameha Day, Rosh Hashanah, Chusoknal (the Korean Thanksgiving holiday), St. Andrew’s Day, and Christmas. Celebrating Vesak (or Chop’a-Il, as we called it in Korea) would be interesting; one of my fondest memories from my mission was visiting Buddhist temples on Buddha’s birthday, with all the laterns and drumming. And given Melissa’s Danish/Scandanavian heritage, we’re still looking for a good way to celebrate St. Lucia’s Day, or some similar holiday.

  2. We still do parties with good food- I just don’t like the religious holidays to come across that way. But the cultural holidays are a lot more hit-and-miss at our house. I’d like to do St. Lucia’s Day though. I’ve just never quite been comfortable with the candles in the hair.

  3. Erica, you might consider connecting the Lunar New Year celebration with Confucianism. For China, Korea, Japan, and perhaps others that’s the religion and the religious rites that dominate. Chinese and Korean shamanism also play a considerable role at that time.

  4. I have a question for those who do this:

    This may be coming out of my minimal experience with celebrating holidays from other traditions, but the religious ones make me a little skittish. An example: some couples from our ward did a passover seder last spring. It was clear that for the first hour, no one was quite sure how to feel. Was this a religious event? (With the ritual, it would have been easy to feel like the experience was akin to going to the temple.) I almost sensed that some people were making fun of what Jews would have, obviously, taken seriously. Or were we at a fancy dinner with someone explaining some interesting historical elements?

    I’m not being adequately articulate here, but I guess I worry that our celebrations might be offensive to the ‘real’ participants in the holiday, especially as we (as we almost certainly will) take liberties by westernizing the holiday to make it convenient to celebrate. By way of the only analogy I can think of, how would you respond if your neighbors informed you that they downloaded the endowment ceremony from the net and acted it out it in their living room in order to learn more about Mormons? (Now I know that’s a poor analogy because most cultures/religions have no expectation of privateness-sacredness surrounding their holidays, but I think you get my idea.)

    Sorry if I am raining on anyone’s parade, but this issue is what prevents me from incorporating more holidays foreign to my own tradition in my family.

  5. Isn’t there something sort of wierd about picking and choosing the holidays you’ll celebrate? There’s something a little odd about celebrating a holiday you don’t have a connection too, I guess. I would love to be invited to a friend’s passover, but, like Julie M. Smith, would be reluctant to just do one of my own.

  6. I guess, my dearest Julie, that in order to celebrate other festivities, a good idea is to have someone explain to you how this is to be done. I have fasted with Muslims during Ramadan (one day, but it was significant) and was told everything before I fasted. It was quite an experience that made me realise the blessings from fasting. If you want to celebrate a Jewish festivity, why not invite a friend/college that is Jewish. You might tell them you are interested in celebrating … what ever festivity, and you would probably get a favourable response.

    Russell Fox, what exactly do you do on Cinco de Mayo? Do you go out and beat the French :)? Have some Mexican food?

  7. Julie–

    “I guess I worry that our celebrations might be offensive to the ‘real’ participants in the holiday, especially as we (as we almost certainly will) take liberties by westernizing the holiday to make it convenient to celebrate.”

    I think this is a completely valid concern, Julie, and it’s one of the reasons why (though I don’t know if we’ve ever explicitly articulated it as such) the holiday rituals we do bring into our home are 1) ones that we have or have had some real, observant connection to and/or the opportunity to study, and 2) ones that are plainly “public” in some fashion. So, to use Jewish holidays for example: Melissa’s sister-in-law is Jewish by birth, and grew up celebrating both Jewish and Christian holidays; from her we’ve learned a lot. Plus, I and several members of my family have visited or lived in Israel at one point or another. Finally, we don’t celebrate holidays Yom Kippur. I think it would be both insulting and wrong for me to pretend to be a rabbi and blow a shofar just for the purposes of teaching my kids about repentance; however, using the stories of Jewish history and faith, such as are found in Rosh Hashana, Purim, and other holidays, stories that are often associated with special meals or other “outward” rituals (in this case, rituals that take place outside a synagogue), in order to teach ourselves and our children seems to me perfectly acceptable. (And regarding the Passover seder–I’ve been to one which was put on at BYU, and like you, I found it somewhat troubling. The problem, as I see it, is that the narration is a kind of testimony; if you’re just saying it while handing out the matzah, then you’re disrespecting it. Like Adam, I’d happily attend a seder if invited, but we’d never put on one. The meals and stories of Hannukah, Rosh Hashana, etc., by contrast, don’t have that same ritual quality.)

    Erica, I don’t mean any of this to be critical of your own choices; it’s just the way we’ve worked things out. I’d be interested to learn how you started diversifying your holiday celebrations, and whether your thinking about why you do so has changed over the years.

  8. Adam–

    “Isn’t there something sort of wierd about picking and choosing the holidays you’ll celebrate? There’s something a little odd about celebrating a holiday you don’t have a connection too, I guess.”

    I agree with you. Once Melissa and I started to get seriously involved in doing this–about seven or eight years ago, I guess–we got to the point where we asked ourselves if just celebrating everything wouldn’t be both overkill and demeaning to the holidays in question. That led us both to think a lot about what days we can legitimately mark as part of the season or calendar in a personally and familially meaningful way. We’ve found that, given our heritage and the sort of stories and events we respond to, various Christian Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandanavian holidays come easily to us; southern European ones, not so much. We feel an interest and affinity for Jewish life and religion, but not for Islam. (Erica, obviously, feels differently; the Muslim faith and culture plainly moves her quite a bit.) Because I’ve been to Korea and like all things Chinese, I force a couple of those such holidays on the family. And so on. I suppose in the end it is still just “picking and choosing,” but hopefully we’re doing so reflectively.

  9. Alex–

    “What exactly do you do on Cinco de Mayo?”

    I must confess, this one is all about the food. I think Melissa and I started celebrating it because 1) in Arkansas there was a pretty sizable Hispanic population, and there were usually local festivals we could get out to and visit on those days, and 2) we want to get our kids to try some Mexican food besides tacos, and so we use this day as an opportunity to force it upon them.

  10. I think the concern is valid too and I understand why many wouldn’t be interested in doing anything of the sort. I also think “celebrate” can mean different things in different contexts. When I say that we celebrate Eid al-Adha, it’s hardly a religious celebration for us. Of course we don’t pretend to go to the mosque or sacrifice a sheep. Instead we talk about why Muslims sacrifice a sheep and about Abraham. I tell my children about my own experiences in seeing how Eid al-Adha is observed by Muslims in different places. We also tie it into our own beliefs. And, of course, we have plenty of good food- just not an entire sheep (I’ve had enough of those).

    Some holidays, especially Eid al-Fitr and Nawruz, have become part of our own family tradition. We have our own way of celebrating them, and they are important to us. And for what it’s worth, many Muslims know that we celebrate their holidays, and none have ever told us they were offended by that. Most seem pleased or surprised that we bother instead of being offended by what we do. My favorite book on Islamic holidays was written by an observant Muslims to teach non-Muslims about Islam- through the major Muslim holidays.

    As for the other holidays that I’ve never celebrated in person, we started celebrating them because all my children were hearing about was Islam since we’re rather partial to it. So when it’s time for Vesak, we’ll pull out Demi’s book on the Buddha; talk about Buddhism’s influence in Tibet, southeast Asia, and Mongolia; and learn about how Vesak is celebrated in different places. Again, we don’t pretend that what we do is anything like the real celebration; it could hardly be called Vesak. But it makes for a convenient day to learn a little more about Buddhism.

    Pesach meals don’t bother me since I’ve done a number of them both with Jews and Christians. A rabbi led all the students at the BYU Jerusalem Center through one every year, and it was clear that it was an educational experience for us, not a religious experience for him. And that’s pretty much the way I look at it too.

    As for the picking and choosing, well, teaching my children about world religions is vitally important to me. It’s handy to have a plan so I know we’ve covered all of them in a simple way every year (we do talk about Confucianism for Chinese New Year, but it’s not as obvious). So in the end, this is my way of teaching my children about other religions. I’d have to pick and choose some day during the year to talk about each one, and a holiday seems like a convenient choice.

  11. For me, if you are celebrating a religious holiday for the purpose of learning about a different culture and religion it can, and should be done in a tasteful way. However, celebrating a religious holiday is different from celebrating a religious ceremony. If I learned about Budda during Vesak or studied the life and teachings of Mohammad during Ramadan it would not violate the sacredness that a Buddhist or a Muslim would have for the holiday.

  12. My wife and I celebrate (or at least commemorate) September 28 each year — the day Joseph Smith restored the fulness of the priesthood.

    Begin the Jubilee!!!!

  13. Gee, with all the emphasis this year on marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, why don’t we celebrate December 23rd this year as “Smithmas”?

  14. In my family we have a big family dinner on May 17th (“Syttende mai”) to celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day.

  15. I’m jewish(with an LDS spouse), so I’ll chime in on how I’d personally feel about Latter Day Saints celebrating (in some way) each of the major Jewish Holidays. In general, however, you might learn more by asking to visit the holiday celebrated either at a local synagogue or with a local Jewish family More information on the holidays at

    Rosh Hashannah & Yom Kippur. I’m not quite sure how a non-jew would celebrate these, they are the holiest days of the Jewish Calendar and in some ways fairly confusing from the outside, the major parts that a non-jew would recognize/remember are Apples and Honey (for a sweet year) eaten on Rosh Hashannah, the Fast on Yom Kippur and the Shofar. I’m not sure really what would be involved in celebrating it by a non-jew. (And a discussion on why the Jewish New Year is at the beginning of the seventh month would be even more confusing)

    Sukkot (Harvest festival & 40 years in the wilderness commemeration). If they wish to build a Sukkah, I think that would be a lot of fun. Sort of a freestanding temporary house/room in the back yard to help remember what it was like in the Wilderness.

    Simchat Torah. Saturday Torah readings have gotten almost to the end of Deuteronomy, so at this holiday we ready Deuteronomy 34 and them immediately read Genesis 1, so we have roll the torah all the way from one pole to the other (most synagogues have two torahs so they don’t have to do this in the middle of the service). Time of greater study, appreciation of the Torah My wife calls it celebration of the rewind button. Not even sure *how* it would be celebrated by non-jews. (read D&C 138 followed by Genesis 1?)

    Channukah is actually rather minor in the list of festivals, and has only come into high knowledge due to it’s proximity to Christmas in the Calendar. Want to light candles, um, OK. It’s actually more of a comemmoration of miracles associated with a military victory. Imagine how the Texans would celebrate the Alamo if they’d actually won.

    Tu Bishvat = New Year for the Trees. Essentially “Jewish Arbor Day”. Plant trees like you would on Arbor day, but plant them right to left. :)

    Passover. This one gets *really* tricky. More than any other holiday in the Jewish Calendar, this one is part of the story of Jesus. My mother and I ran a Seder (Festive meal with prayers done the first two nights of passover) for the Stake Youth in the Stake my wife was in at the time. Generated a *lot* of interesting discussion. This is definately a case where visiting a Seder done by Jews is probably the best way.

    Shavuot. Not really sure *now* it would be celebrated by non-jews, commemerates the first giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and first harvest of the Fruits.

    Purim, the Holiday about the Book of Esther. Some rather distinctive foods (three cornered pastries), dressing in Costume and a commandment to “Eat, Drink, and be merry”. Sometimes described as Jewish Mardi-Gras, not *that* far off. All are welcome, but proper celebration of Purim for adults really is *not* in concordance with D&C 89. :)

    Tish B’Av – Fast commemorating the desctruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. If you fast for Tish B’Av, you are so far into following jewish Holidays, that you should see a Rabbi about conversion.


  16. “(read D&C 138 followed by Genesis 1?)”

    “Imagine how the Texans would celebrate the Alamo if they’d actually won.”

    Brilliant. Please visit us again, Randolph Finder.

  17. Thanks. I do try. At least my wife says I’m trying, that’s the same thing, right?

  18. I’m always interested to hear how other families do things like this. I’m a minimalist in terms of celebrations myself, so I don’t see myself doing something similar, and we barely keep up with the holidays that we do observe as LDS and Christian folk as it is. My wife likes to do stuff like this though.

  19. You come by it honestly, Bryce. I remember RNI taking at least 3 hours off for Christmas. :-)

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