We humans love to celebrate and we’ll use any excuse to do so. Whether it’s to connect with our tribe or give thanks to a deity, each holiday has a special meaning to participants.
Here is a list of major celebrations around the world that will help you understand different cultures and traditions.
CELEBRATIONS AROUND THE WORLD
CHINESE NEW YEAR
This festival celebrates the start of spring in China and is also called the Spring Festival. The exact date varies as the New Year begins on the new moon between 21st January and 20th February.
The legend of New Year is based on the myth of Nian, a hungry beast who attacked animals and people on New Year’s Eve. A wise man told villagers that Nian was afraid of loud noises, fire and the colour red, hence why these are a feature in Chinese New Year celebrations.
This spring festival is a time when families gather together, resulting in China’s large home population and diaspora on the move.
In Ireland, St. Brigid’s Day marks the start of spring and is uniquely celebrated as the Biddy in my part of Ireland.
In Christian parts of the world, this celebration takes place before Lent, the religious observance that requires people to sacrifice pleasures/luxuries in the 6-7 week period before Easter. The dates vary but it usually takes place in February.
Carnival is party central and countries differ in the way they celebrate. Rio de Janeiro has the largest parade (Carnevale) while Venice’s carnival in Italy is famous for its costumed mask parties. Shrove Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras/Pancake Tuesday) is the final day of Carnival.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Ireland’s national holiday is celebrated all around the world, given the stretch of the Irish Diaspora. It’s held on 17th March, the feast day of St. Patrick, the Welsh slave turned holy man who converted Ireland to Christianity.
In Ireland, it’s celebrated through parades and raucous behaviour. The first parades were held by Irish immigrants in the US and the world’s largest parade is in New York. Read about my New York St. Patrick’s Day experience here.
Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil. Held in March, it welcomes the spring as well. The night before Holi, people hold bonfires as offerings to the gods to ward off evil. On Holi, people drench each other with coloured powder/water as a celebration of the love between Krishna and Radha.
A Christian holiday, Easter Sunday commemorates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The days preceding Easter are called Holy Week (final days of Lent) and commemorate the final days of Jesus.
Different events are held all over the christian world to mark these days, with Jerusalem and Rome being the major focal points. Throughout Spain, Holy Week is celebrated as Semana Santa. The giving of Easter eggs symbolises the empty tomb of Jesus and his resurrection. Easter can take place in late March or April.
Nowruz is the secular Persian New Year (Iran) but is celebrated in many parts of the world around the spring equinox in March. Different regions have different customs of celebration but the coming together of families is common to all regions.
Ramadan is the holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims around the world. It involves refraining from food and drink during daylight hours. Each evening, the fasting day ends with Iftar, the meal that follows the call to prayer. Ramadan finishes with Eid Al-Fitr, the festival of breaking the fast.
In pagan times, Midsummer was celebrated around the summer solstice. But in most countries that host Midsummer festivals nowadays, they are held on the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist on 24th June. Midsummer is popular in European countries with dancing around maypoles, bonfires and/or fire-walking being the common denominator activities in most regions.
Also known as US Independence Day, the Declaration of Independence of the 13 US colonies from British rule took place on 4th July 1776. Fireworks and parades are a key feature of US celebrations. But given the reach of the United States, 4th July is also celebrated around the world.
14th July 1789 is when protestors against the French monarch Louis XVI stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, a key date and manoeuvre in the French Revolution. Bastille Day is France’s National Day and is celebrated with military parades, fireworks, picnics and family gatherings.
This is the Jewish New Year, celebrated over two days, normally taking place in September. It marks the beginning of the 10-day period known as the Days of Awe. This 10-day period of reflection finishes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The eating of symbolic foods and the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn) are key parts of Rosh Hashanah.
This festival celebrates the start of the Hindu New Year but is also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains. The exact dates vary but it usually takes place in October/November. People decorate their homes with lights to guide the goddess Lakshmi into their homes. It’s also a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. Diwali is also known as the Festival of Lights.
1st November is the Christian celebration known as All Saints Day or All Hallows’ Day, with Hallows being the Old English name for saint. Halloween comes from the phrase All Hallows’ Eve falling on 31st October.
There are some similarities between Halloween and the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain where the spirits of dead relatives revisited their homes. Samhain is the Irish word for November.
Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico is a 2-day event with a similar theme. On 1st November, the spirits of children are welcomed and on 2nd November the spirits of adults.
As one of the most well-known holidays around the world, Christmas needs little introduction, especially to the two billion Christians that observe it. The celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem takes place on 25th December. Different denominations of Christianity have different customs whether it be cuisine, decorations or gift-giving. Santa Claus is said to be based on Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children.
In the above list, I’ve tried to include a mix of celebrations around the world, ranging from national days, religious festivals to secular celebrations. The majority of celebrations on my list have religious connections. But this shouldn’t be surprising as over half the world’s population identify as followers of either Christianity (2.4 billion), Islam (1.8 billion) or Hinduism (1.2 billion).
Whether it’s to commemorate past events, preserve our heritage or give thanks, special celebrations are one of the best ways of learning about another culture. But most of all, these holidays and celebrations bring communities together. So go forth and celebrate.