Learning about one another’s significant festivals, fasts, and other commemorations throughout the year is another critical window one our faith traditions. Knowing these dates, and wishing one another well in our observance of them can be a very meaningful gesture of interreligious friendship.
Islamic Holy Days and Observances
- Al-Hijra/Muharram: Although there are no explicitly prescribed religious actions or practices associated with it, the first day of the month of Muharram is the Islamic ‘New Year’. Muharram is the month in which the emigration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina took places in the year 622 CE, a journey known as the Hijra. Most Muslims regard the day as a time for reflection on the Hijra, and on the year to come. In modern times, some Muslims will use the occasion to offer one another blessings for the new year ahead.
- Ashura: Ashura is another observance which takes place in the month of Muharram in the Islamic Calendar, in this case on the 9th and 10th A memorial is made at this time of God’s salvation of the Prophet Moses and the Israelites from Pharaoh in Egypt. Ashura also marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala by the armies of a corrupt governor. The 10th of Muharram is a significant day of remembrance for both Sunni and Shia Muslims, and is observed with profound acts of mourning especially in Shia communities because of the special recognition given to Ali.
- Eid ul-Adha: Eid ul-Adha is a commemoration of the obedient willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail in response to the command of Allah. Over the course of three days, sacrifices of domestic animals are made in remembrance of God’s provision of an animal in Ismail’s place. Following these sacrifices, the meat which is produced is divided up and traditionally given to those who are hungry and in need. Families and friends will also cook meat for their own celebrations, and special emphasis on giving and sharing with others during these days.
- Eid ul-Fitr: This occasion, observed on the first day of the month of Shawwal, serves as the conclusion of the period of fasting observed during the previous month of Ramadan. The word Fitr literally means “to break the fast”. Many Muslims will make their way to special congregational prayers early in the morning, commonly followed by a sermon (Khutba). At the conclusion, feasting and celebration in the homes of relatives and friends follows into the daytime.
- Lailat ul Bara’ah/Shab e Barat: Muslims differ in their recognition of this Holy Day, which is observed at night. However, those who observe it believe that it is a special evening time when Muslims may seek forgiveness for their sins. It occurs two weeks prior to the beginning of Ramadan, on the 15th of the month of Shaban.
- Lailat ul Qadr: Translated as the Night of Power, Muslims consider Lailat ul Qadr to be the most holy night of the year. The final 10 days of the month of Ramadan are generally understood to have special spiritual significance, and Lailat ul Qadr is observed near the end of that month on the 27th It is on this night that the Prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Holy Qur’an. It is typical for Muslims to mark this event through special observances of prayer, devotional reading, and study, as such acts undertaken on Lailat ul Qadr are held to have a heightened importance because of the holiness of the night.
- Manners and Etiquette for Muslim-Christian Relations: Lailat ul Miraj, which means the Night of Ascension, remembers the nighttime journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca in Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven and into the Divine presence. It was during this journey that he received the instruction to direct the Muslims regarding the five daily prayers. The place of this ascension is marked today by Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
- Milad an-Nabi: This occasion marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Because it was not celebrated in the early times of Islam, it is another commemoration around which Muslims differ with their recognition of its observance. In some Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, it is celebrated with elaborate festivals. Other countries, like Saudi Arabia, outright forbit it. One common feature of Milad an-Nabi festivities in those places that have them is the reading and singing of poetry and songs in praise of God and the Prophet.
- Ramadan: The month of Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, and it receives its prominence because of its association with the Prophet Mohammed’s revelation of the Qur’an. Because the Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates for the observance of Ramadan alter by roughly 10 days each year according to the Gregorian Calendar most common in the West. One of the five pillars of Islam is the obligation to fast during the month of Ramadan, which means refraining from both food and drink and from sexual intimacy. The fasting period begins at dawn, and after sunset is broken in a meal known as ‘Iftar, often held together with family and friends. Muslims are also highly encouraged to focus even more deeply on their religious devotion during Ramadan, including such things as community worship, spiritual life, Qur’anic reading and study, volunteering, and expressions of charity.
- Yaum al-‘Arafah: Each year, during the month of Dhul Hijjah, millions of Muslims make an annual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Hajj. Participation in this pilgrimage, which involves specific rituals performed over three days, is also one of the five pillars of Islam. Yaum al-‘Arafah is observed on the second day of pilgrimage, and begins at dawn. Pilgrims travel from Mecca to nearby Mount Arafat and the Plain of Arafat, and, from morning until evening, do nothing but call together upon God in a spirit of repentance, seeking mercy and forgiveness.
Christian Holy Days and Observances
The Christian year is divided into liturgical seasons focused around important moments in the life of Jesus and the Church. The dates and ways of celebrating these festivals vary between the different churches, so this is only a partial and generalized introduction.
- Advent: From the Latin word adventus, which means ‘arrival’ or ‘coming’, Advent is the first season of the Church year. It begins four Sundays before Christmas day (the Sunday falling on or nearest to November 30), and ends on Christmas Eve, December 24. Advent focuses on preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ – both as a memorial of his first birth, as well as his coming again. It is a period intended for both sincere self-examination and joyful anticipation. In some Christian traditions the season is marked by the lighting of four candles are fixed to a garland made of evergreen boughs as a way of marking the progression of these four preparatory weeks before Christmas. Other popular devotions, especially among children, include the use of an Advent calendar to count down the days to Christmas.
- Christmas: Christmas is one of major annual festivals, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that with the birth of Jesus, the Word of God became flesh (Incarnation). The majority of Christians celebrate on December 25 according to the widely used dating system known as the Gregorian calendar. However, some Eastern Christian Churches follow an older calendar and therefore mark the celebration on a day which corresponds with early January according to the Gregorian use. There are various customs to celebrate Christmas, which include gift giving, singing Christmas music (caroling), acting out the events of Jesus’ birth through a Nativity Play, the exchange of Christmas cards, attending special church services, a festive meal, and the display of various Christmas decorations including Christmas lights, nativity scenes, etc. The twelve days between December 25 and January 6 is a time for the whole Church to celebrate and give thanks for coming of the Word of God in human form.
- Epiphany: The word Epiphany comes from the Greek language and means appearance or manifestation. It refers to a Christian feast day which celebrates the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ to the world. The feast commemorates primarily the visit of the three Magi from the East. According to a narrative recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, three Magi, who are also sometimes referred to as Wise Men or Kings, traveled from faraway lands to find Jesus after his birth, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In this event is expressed the conviction that Jesus’ physical manifestation extended beyond the Jewish context in which he lived to include all the nations of the world. The traditional date to begin remembrance of the Epiphany is January 6.
- Lent: The season of Lent is a solemn time of prayer, fasting, self-examination, and charity, all in preparation for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ at Easter. Lent begins 40 days before Easter on a day called Ash Wednesday, an occasion when Christians are reminded that their lives do not last forever by receiving a mark of dust/ashes on their foreheads. Lent is a 40-day season in part as a commemoration of the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert and enduring temptation by Satan. During Lent, many churches will cover up or remove things like statues, art, flowers, and so on, from their churches and altars. This is done in order to emphasize the solemn character of the season. Depending on the Christian denomination and local custom, Lent ends either the day before Good Friday, known as Maundy Thursday, or at sundown on the Saturday prior to Easter Sunday. On this Holy Saturday evening/night, a vigil of prayer is held to mark the profound time between the death of Jesus and his Easter resurrection.
- Good Friday: The final week of Lent is known as Holy Week, which reaches a high point on the Friday of that week. Good Friday is the day on which Christians remember Jesus’ crucifixion. Prayer and worship services held on this day draw people into the story of his betrayal, arrest, judgment, torture suffering, and death. The day is not ‘good’ by any normal measure, and yet is understood as a source of blessing and grace for Christians precisely because of what it reveals of God’s great love, compassion, and mercy towards us, even in our evil and sinful state.
- Easter: The three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday represent the high point of Holy Week, known in Latin as the Triduum. The festival of the Resurrection of the Lord, Easter Sunday, is the pinnacle of the Christian year. It is on this day that the Church joyfully proclaims the good news Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. In this event, Christians see also a promise that, in Christi, a new way of living has become possible for us all. Easter has always been a time of celebration and feasting and many traditional Easter games and customs developed, such as egg decorating, enjoying sweets such as chocolate, as well as other Easter foods. The date of Easter varies year to year, according to the first Sunday after the full moon on or before March 21st. Because of different calendars being used, it is also often celebrated on different days entirely by Christian communities in the East and the West. The Easter season carries on for 50 days following the Sunday.
- Ascension: During the 50 days following his resurrection, Jesus is believed to have appeared to his disciples and many large groups of people. During this time, he commissioned them to tell the good news of his life, death, and resurrection, and to carry on his ministry in his name. The Ascension marks the close of the earthly journey of Jesus and refers to his return from this world into the communion of God in the heavenly realm. Ascension Day is observed 40 days after Easter.
- Pentecost: Jesus promised his disciples that, upon his departure and return to God, those who believed in him and sought to follow in his way would not be left alone. The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, would come upon them and fill them with power to carry on in the mission of Christ. The day of Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit, as well as the inauguration of the Church of Christ – the community of all those who are gathered together by God to hand on and live out the healing and reconciling acts of Jesus to the rest of the world. For this reason, Pentecost is sometimes called the ‘birthday’ of the Church.
- All Saints: Those who have been baptized into the salvation of Jesus are understood as having been made holy, i.e. been made saints. In some cases, some Christian traditions will formally recognize certain figures in the history of the Church as having displayed particularly heroic and inspirational virtues. These individuals are remembered as Saints in a special way and are often commemorated with minor celebrations throughout the seasons of the Christian liturgical year. All of our forebears who have died in the faith and hope of Christ are not gone forever but remain members of the communion of the Church, awaiting the resurrection and eternal life that is God’s will for all. The feast of All Saints, marked on November 1st each year, celebrates exactly this.
 The descriptions that follow here have consulted and drawn upon resources available on the website of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which can be found at sosspeace.org