Holidays & Traditions

Thu, December 21, 2000

Holidays and Traditions

PRCI is an international organization, and as such, we represent a diverse, rich variety of cultures. In the spirit of learning, this is a simple reference to the many holidays and traditions that are celebrated by our members.

When did New Year's move to January?

Though the date of New Year's Day seems universal to many people, the holiday wasn't always celebrated in January. Throughout time, the new year has been welcomed during significant astronomical or agricultural events. Following a lunar cycle, the Romans celebrated the beginning of a new year in March. When the emperor Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 46 BCE, he started a new tradition.

Caesar instituted January 1 as the first day of the year to honor the month's namesake Janus — the Roman god of beginnings whose two faces allowed him to look simultaneously into the past and the future. For this new holiday, the Romans celebrated by offering sacrifices to Janus and by exchanging gifts, attending parties and decorating their homes with laurel branches.

The Animals of the Zodiac: a Lunar New Year tradition

The origin of the Chinese Zodiac is laid out in a story. The Jade Emperor invited all the world’s creatures to participate in a race. When only 12 showed up, the emperor dedicated a year to each one in a cycle. The order that they finished the race would determine the order of the cycle.

The final obstacle the animals encountered was a river. As the ox made its way to the bank, the rat was tired and knew he needed help. The rat convinced the kind ox to let him ride across on top of his head. Once they were near the other side, the rat jumped off the ox’s head and crossed the finish line first!

The tiger could have easily won the race but was swept up in a current. He finished third. The dragon also could have won but stopped to help a nearby village. When he returned to the race, he saw the rabbit was struggling and blew it back on its path. The dragon was content to come in fifth place after the rabbit.

Next, the horse galloped toward the finish line, but the snake startled it and crossed the finish line before him. The sheep, the monkey, and the rooster built a raft to cross the river together. They finished the race in that order. The dog decided to play and splash in the river and would have been last if the pig hadn’t taken a nap and came in last.

Observing Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar literally means “scorching heat” in Arabic, and marks the time when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad by God with a month-long fast. Today, this month-long testimony to faith is observed by more than one billion Muslims from around the world.

Dates for Ramadan are set based on sightings of the moon and other astronomical calculations. Time zones may also play a part depending on where Eid is celebrated around the world. Most communities in the US and Canada follow the decision of the Islamic Society of North America.

Fasting at Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam – the fundamental rules that all Muslims follow – along with the Shahadah (declaration of faith), Salat (prayer), Zakat (charity) and the Hajj pilgrimage. A familiar component of Ramadan is fasting which allows them to understand the suffering of others. It begins just before sunrise or Fajr, and ends at sunset or Maghrib. Not everyone is required to fast during Ramadan including children, pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and those who suffer from ill health. During Ramadan, there is an increased offering of the Salat, prayers giving thanks to Allah. However, Ramadan isn't limited to fasting and prayers. Charity is another pillar of Islam, and Positive actions might include giving money or volunteering for a good cause throughout the month.

Wish Muslim friends a happy Ramadan by saying, "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Have a (happy) blessed Ramadan." To mark Eid, the celebration marking the end of the month, wish friends "Eid Mubarek."

The Jewish High Holy Days

The High Holy Days, also known as the Ten Days of Penitence, is the most sacred of the Jewish religious holidays. They start with Rosh Hashanah starts and end with Yom Kippur. While Rosh Hashanah is often a joyous celebration, Yom Kippur is a more somber occasion.

This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the year 5783 for the Hebrew calendar. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah translates to “head of the year,” and the two-day holiday is considered a time to reflect and repent in anticipation of the coming year. Typically blown in the morning of both days of Rosh Hashanah, the Shofar is used as a call to repentance during the holiday. Also referred to as the “day of judgment,” the holiday is a time for reflection on failings and shortcomings from the past year and way for improving and growing in the upcoming year.

One of Rosh Hashanah’s traditions, taschlich, is to symbolically cast off sins by throwing pieces of bread into a body of running water. It is often celebrated with symbolic foods, like apples dipped in honey for the hope of a sweet year to come.

Yom Kippur is also known as the Day of Atonement and represents an opportunity to ask for forgiveness from God and other people. Feasts from the previous week are replaced with fasting to stop normal routines and focus attention on prayer and God. It is traditional to wear white on Yom Kippur. White is a reminder to be like the angels who praise God, symbolizes forgiveness and spiritual purity, and that life is temporary. 
After synagogue services throughout the day, a single, long blowing of the Shofar ends the Holy Day service and fasting. A festive meal at home with family and friends often concludes the High Holy Days.

Diwali, the Festival of Lights

Primarily celebrated by followers of the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain faiths, Diwali is a “festival of lights” that celebrates the triumph of light over dark and good over evil, and the blessings of victory, freedom, and enlightenment. The name comes from Sanksrit dipavali, meaning “row of lights.
The holiday occurs annually during the Hindu month of Kartik on the day of the new Moon, when the sky is at its darkest. Candles, clay lamps, and oil lanterns are lit and placed everywhere. Fireworks are often set off, perhaps to ward off evil spirits.
In much of India, Diwali is a five-day celebration that peaks on the third day with the main celebration. Because it is celebrated by so many people worldwide, traditions are diverse, though there are a few common themes, including the lighting of candles and the gathering of families. Families gather together, wearing new clothes, to celebrate with sweets and other special food, and to pray for their ancestors.. Lighting diyas, beautiful decorative oil lamps, honor the goddess of wealth and prosperity Lakshmi and to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness. 

Why a "Merry" Christmas?

Throughout December, you've probably heard wishes for a "Merry Christmas." It’s written in cards, featured in music, and heralded in movies. When "Happy Easter" and "Happy Birthday" are the norm in North America, that "merry" part of "Merry Christmas" is pretty unique. There are several interesting theories for where and why "merry" originated.

You may know that "Happy Christmas" is still widely used in England. Some believe that "happy" took on a higher class connotation in contrast to the lower class rowdiness associated with "merry." Look to the royal family who adopted "Happy Christmas" as their preferred greeting, and that’s when others took note.

From a letter dated in 1534, we know that bishop John Fisher used the phrase "Merry Christmas" when writing to Henry VIII's chief minister Thomas Cromwell. The English carol introduced in the 1500s, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," also uses the popular phrase.

Historians cite a simple grammatical lesson for the wishes using “merry.” "Happy" is a word that describes an inner emotional condition, while "merry" is a behavioral descriptor—something active, possibly even raucous. Consider the free-spirited act of "merry-making" versus the passive state of simply "being happy." Merry became a natural choice for the masses.

Language evolves and changes over time, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, people slowly stopped using "merry" as an individual word. To this day, it remains in common phrases like "the more, the merrier" as well as Christmas stories and songs. The word "merry" on its own often makes us think of December 25. It's no wonder that when we hear "Merry Christmas," we feel something sentimental. 

Please share your comments, corrections, and suggestions with Anita Vigilante, Communications Specialist.