Holidays, Holy Days, Birthdays and More by Shannon Donnelly
Almost all modern holidays—except for those invented to sell greeting cards or inventions such as Mother’s Day (celebrations of mothers goes way back, but the US holiday was created by Anna Jarvis and became an official holiday in 1914)—come to us from ancient times and from the lunar and solar calendars. All religions—pagan or otherwise—need holy days in which ritual reinforces the connection between the people and the religion.
In Egypt, Maat, Ra, Isis and the rest of the pantheon all had holy days, and with a lot of gods this means lots of celebrations. You can see how this could make for a busy temple and why temples might be dedicated to a specific deity, and why a family might choose a patron god—otherwise you’d never get anything done.
Ancient Greece was actually several city-states, and so the celebrations of Athens would not necessarily be those of Sparta. Every god, however, needed celebration and feasts, and Dionysus—god of wine—had more than his share of festivals. And, why not, since a good feast needs wine to go with.
In ancient Rome, the calendar offered feriae, with stativae or annual holidays on a fixed date, conceptivae or annual holidays on movable feast days (much like our modern Easter), or imperative for holidays on demand to celebrate victories for example. Feriae might include rites to celebrate the gods, public games might be offered, and there might also be family rites. The Romans celebrated the ides of each month—the middle day—and Kalends on March 1 was an important day to re-kindle the perpetual fire of Rome at the Temple of the Vestals. Every god and goddess had a holy day—and the Romans didn’t mind integrating gods from other religions (most of theirs were already transplanted from Greece).
The Roman Saturnalia, which is not unlike our modern Christmas, was in part based on older celebrations, such as those for Marduk, and Zagmuk was an old celebration in which the enemies of Marduk were burned in effigy (and gifts were exchanged, which sounds familiar enough to us). The Roman Saturnalia came to be associated with excess, but it started off on December 17, had traditions to deck the halls with boughs of laurel and green trees as well as candles and lamps, and friends might exchange gifts. While this evolved into Christmas (a winter solstice celebration, also important to Celts), it’s worth noting that the early church thought Twelfth Night on January 5 to be the bigger celebration. This celebration combines the Roman Saturnalia with the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three wise men were said to have paid tribute to the Baby Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church still considers this date more important than the modern Christmas.
In Europe, The Celts held sway over a good deal of territory. Along with the Norse, their holy days took hold.
For the Celtic year, winter ended February 1 with the celebration of Imbolc or Oimelc. This is the time when ewes begin to lamb and lactate for their offspring, and life begins to return. For the ancient Celts, this was the celebration for Brigid (also Brigit, Brighid or Bride), the Light-Bringer, one of the main Celtic goddesses. She was strong enough to survive and be transformed by early Catholics into Saint Bridget, who was celebrated, along with the Virgin Mary, on February 2, Candlemas Day.
One of the main Celtic holy days on November 1 became All Saints Day or All Hallows and October 31 therefore set as All Hallows Eve. It should be noted that Saman (also Samana, Shamhain, and Samhain) a minor Celtic guardian of herds, and so important to a herding society, played a part in the celebrations, but modern lore has turned him into an ancient god of death and mixed up several Celtic customs along with imported Christian beliefs to give us Halloween.
The Norse celebrations were held fairly close to Celtic holy days, In Norse culture Winter Nights, the Norse New Year fell from October 29 to November 2. Then Yule, the Norse winter solstice fell on December 21, and Ostara on March 21 (the vernal equinox). Litah was the Norse summer solstice celebration on June 21, and Mabon or Harvest End fell on September 21, the fall equinox.
In the Celtic world, they ignored leap year days—February 29 did not exist. This became the day when the world could be out-of-order. Some tradition held that St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for proposals, and Patrick answered that women could propose on Leap Day. In Scotland, their tradition added on that any man who declined a proposal in a leap year must pay a fine, which could be anything from a fine silk dress to a kiss given to the disappointed female.
St. David’s Day the Welsh patron saint came on March 1, and tradition held that all good Welshmen should wear a leak—a vegetable readily available from winter fare. Along with saints, the Catholic Church brought with it Lent. Fat Tuesday is still a celebration in many places as the last day to feast and indulge before you give up the good stuff for Lent.
As noted, the most ancient of calendars are based on solar and lunar events and in England this was noted with:
* First cross-quarter day, also known as St. Bridgid’s Day (Imbolic, or Brigantia)
* Vernal equinox
* Second cross-quarter day, also known as May Day (Walpurgis, or Beltaine)
* Summer solstice, also known as midsummer, (Samradh)
* Third cross-quarter day, also known as Lammas (Lughnasadh)
* Autumn equinox (Mabon)
* Fourth cross-quarter day, also known as All Hallows (Samhain)
* Winter solstice, also known as midwinter (Yule or Alban)
From the earliest times, winter festivals have been held around or just after the winter solstice (December 21). These have now developed into the Christmas and New Year celebrations. However, before the present Gregorian calendar was adopted by England in 1752, the Julian calendar was in use, and the administrative year began on March 25 (not in January).
Even in Georgian times, Lady Day on March 25 was the traditional day for planting, and hiring farm laborers for such work. In the church calendars, this day was set as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary to tell her about her upcoming role. This was also the traditional day for when yearly agreements might end or need renewal—it was the “old” day for the first day of the year.
In Mesoamerican and North America many of the culture holidays or celebrations were based around weather as well as the gods. The Aztec culture celebrated the first rain with a festival in February, and another festival to Tlaloc and other rain gods in March. At Chichez Itza, the Mayans built a temple so that on the vernal equinox a beam of light creates Kukulcan—otherwise known as Quetzalcoatl by the Aztecs—the snake god. And most Southwest tribes have feast days not just to the saints (due to the influence of the Catholic Church), but to bring the rain back to the land.
While holy days to celebrate the births of gods were once the most important feast days, celebration of the individual’s birth is a more modern notion.
Since rulers were generally gods, their births were important, but not so much for the individual, unless noted for Astrological reasons. Some cultures considered it important to have friends and family close on birth dates—days when evil might stalk you, but the Romans are credited with expanding birthday celebrations, including public holidays for famous citizens. Early Christians considered such celebrations too pagan—the Church didn’t adopt “birthdays” until about the Fourth century, and some strict sects still have bans against birthday celebrations. However, Buddha’s birthday is an important celebration for Buddhists—but this date can vary widely country by country. In the Hindu calendar, this is usually celebrated in Vaisakha month, and so is called Vesak or Buddha Purnima.
Many cultures adopted specific-age celebrations. China honored a child’s first birthday, as did Germany with a kinderfeste, which involved cake and candles. Jewish culture holds the bar mitzvah for coming of age at thirteen, and a bat mitzvah for girls at age twelve or thirteen. In many Spanish cultures the quinceañera for girls serves the same purpose of introducing a girl as a woman at age fifteen.
Almost every culture includes New Year celebration—even if that the actual date of the new year varies widely.
History gives Ancient Babylon the earliest recorded new years, which fell in late March (on our Calendars). Babylonian new year began the first new moon after the vernal equinox—the festival of Akitu, which celebrated the victory of Marduk over Tiamat, and this would be when a new kind was crowned or the current king’s rule was renewed.
The Chinese new year also followed the new moon of the first lunar month, so the date can fall anytime between January 21 and February 21. But not all cultures began the new year in spring—many held the new year to begin in fall (after the harvest came in).
January 1 as New Year’s Day came about due to the reform of the Roman calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. This calendar spread over the known Roman world, but not everyone held to it. At times, December 25 was seen as New Year’s Day, but others held to March 25 as New Years Day. When the Julian calendar was replaced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 with the Gregorian calendar, January 1 again was held as the start of the new year.
Celebrations can include parties, kissing the old year away, food that will bring good luck—that’s posole in New Mexico, or black-eyed peas in the South—making noise to chase away evil spirits, exchanging coins to bring prosperity, clearing off old debt (even if this is only done symbolically).
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a nomination for Romance Writer’s of America’s RITA award, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
In addition to her Regency romances, she is the author of the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series, Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, and the SF/Paranormal, Edge Walkers. Her work has been on the top seller list of Amazon.com and includes the Historical romances, The Cardros Ruby and Paths of Desire.
She is the author of several young adult horror stories, and has also written computer games and offers editing and writing workshops. She lives in New Mexico with two horses, two donkeys, two dogs, and the one love of her life. Shannon can be found online at shannondonnelly.com, facebook.com/sdwriter, and twitter/sdwriter.