The Old English word for holiday is haligdæg, meaning “holy day,” or “religious anniversary”—a solemn designation.
Over time, the word began to cover religious festivals, finally coming to cover most any day of exemption from labor.
Today, we use the word even more liberally, applying it to everything from “Boss’s Day,” on October 16th, to “National Hairball Awareness Day” on April 29th.
With the huge number of holidays, great, small, and weird, there are bound to be a few esoteric holidays that are overlooked, even amongst religious holy days. This is true even for the world’s major religions.
All holidays tell a story of some kind. These narratives can be epic in scope, or small and personal, but all are fascinating windows into the cultures which spawned them.
So why miss out on the smaller parts of the human story? Together, let’s explore these 6 religious holidays you’ve never heard about.
Paganism: Yggdrasil Day
In Norse Mythology, Yggdrasil is the enormous tree of life, an eternally green ash of cosmic proportions. It is carried by three roots, the first of which resides in Asgard, home of the gods. The next root lies in Jotunheim, the land of giants. The third and final root plunges into Nifheim, the origin of cold rivers.
Its branches tie together the nine worlds of Norse mythic cosmology, binding together the fabric of the universe, moving through lands inhabited by humans, gods, and giants, joining them all together. It is a living bridge.
The symbolism is unmistakable—a major part of the mythical Yggdrasil is the representation of the living connection between all things.
Yggdrasil Day is a fairly new holiday in the Neopagan tradition, falling on the 22nd of April, and celebrates this connection by honoring what Yggdrasil represents. This day is a time to contemplate the place of humankind within the nine worlds, and to celebrate the blessings of nature, often shown by planting a tree. This is also a time to celebrate one’s culture, heritage, and spirituality.
Regardless of faith, Yggdrasil Day is a great opportunity for anyone to give back to nature and recognize our interdependency on both one another and the natural world.
Few Christian holidays are truly unknown, but Pentecost is, perhaps, the least talked about.
This holiday celebrates the time when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ 10 days after Jesus’ ascent to heaven, as described in Acts 2:1-31.
According to these verses, the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred while about 120 followers of Christ, including the Apostles, were celebrating the Jewish day of Shavuot. The group was suddenly assailed by the sound of a “rushing mighty wind,” and there appeared bursts of fire which hovered over each individual. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in one another’s languages.
Today, this miraculous event is not widely celebrated, often being overshadowed by Mother’s Day, but is still quite religiously significant. The holiday is most commonly recognized by liturgical churches, and can be celebrated through special worship services and the wearing of red, which symbolizes the fire that came down on the followers of Christ. Many churches also hold baptisms and confirmations on this holiday.
Ultimately Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit, and its ability to unite and dwell within individual Christians.
Islam: Laylat al-Qadr
This holiday, translated as “Night of Decree,” or “Night of Destiny,” is the celebration of the revelation of the first verses of the Quran to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
It falls on one of the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan, and on this night it is believed that the blessings and mercy of Allah are most abundant, that sin is forgiven, and that prayers are accepted. It is also, on this holiday, that Muslims believe that the annual decree is accepted—the moment when God sends down His decrees from heaven to earth, wherein He destines the actions of creation for the next year.
Muslims offer extra prayers during this time, and hold a vigil, seeking Allah’s forgiveness and mercy. Most of all, they take this time to deeply read the Quran. By devoting this time to remember Allah and study His word, Muslims hope to receive the blessings connected to the holiday.
Buddhism: Buddha’s Birthday
To much of the Western world, Buddha’s birthday is largely unknown, but in the Buddhist tradition, this is a very important day.
Prince Gautama Buddha, born in 624 BC, was the founder of Buddhism, a man of royal blood who renounced his life of wealth and power in the pursuit of the alleviation of human suffering, which moved him after witnessing it in person.
Siddhartha left his palace, taking on an ascetic lifestyle, but when he failed to find answers here, he turned to meditative techniques. When this, too, failed to yield the answers he sought, he sat beneath a peepal tree, now known as the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, and attained the enlightenment he sought—a middle ground between empty self-mortification and mindless self-indulgence.
For the remaining years of his life, Siddhartha collected and taught these ideas to others, his collected teachings becoming the basis for Buddhism—a source of peace and prosperity for many millions of followers today.
So it is no wonder that his birthday is of such great import to the millions of Buddhists around the globe.
Diwali, “the festival of lights,” is an Indian festival holiday that is traditionally celebrated in the autumn of each year. It is a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, and hope over despair.
This festival includes countless lights placed atop homes, outside windows and doors, and around all manner of buildings in the countries where it is observed. The lamps symbolically represent small parts of the sun, the giver of energy and light.
The festival extends over a five-day period, but the main festival night of Diwali is on the darkened night of the new moon, on the Hindu Lunisolar month of Kartika, which corresponds to a date between mid-October to mid-November on our Gregorian calendar. It is on this darkest of nights that the lights of the festival are thrown into greatest contrast against the blackness—and win.
Diwali is celebrated by a variety of faiths, including Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, using the holiday to mark different myths and stories, all of which celebrate the universal defeat of darkness by light.
Peshach, or “Passover,” is a Jewish spring festival which commemorates the escape of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, as described in the book of Exodus.
In the narrative of the Biblical Passover, God helped the Israelites escape from Egypt by inflicting plagues upon the Egyptians—the tenth and final plague was, by far, the worst, and caused the death of the Egyptian first-borns.
The Israelites were commanded, by God, to mark the doorposts of their abodes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb—on seeing this, the spirit of God would pass over the first-born in these marked homes, hence the name of the holiday.
During this time, the consumption, benefit, or ownership of leavened bread is frowned upon, as the avoidance of leaven commemorates the fact that the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry that they did not have time to allow their bread to rise.
The holiday is celebrated through the retelling of the story of the Exodus and ritual meals—the heart of this holiday lies in experiencing the feelings and sensations that the ancient Israelites did as they escaped their bondage—to personalize the story.
Knowledge Brings Us Together
Nothing brings humankind together like getting to know one another—after all, to truly know someone often fosters empathy. Learning of the lesser-known holidays of different faiths draws us closer together as human beings, enabling us to be more knowledgeable about one another’s culture, and the days we hold most dear.
In this endeavor, learning of even the smallest holidays counts for much.