March 27-April 4
Passover, or Pesach, began in ancient times as a spring nature festival, and gradually morphed into a memorial of the Jews' springtime deliverance from the land of Egypt, where they were slaves. During Pesach, Jews eat unleavened bread to remember how speedily they had to leave Egypt; they had no time to leaven their bread properly. Families hold Passover seders, or special dinners, on the first night of Passover (some, especially Orthodox Jews, celebrate two nights) to recall the mass exodus. The seder features, among other dishes, bitter herbs to commemorate the harsh life of slavery. Seders may stretch late into the night as families read the haggadah, or Passover liturgy, and discuss it. Passover lasts for eight days, with observant Jews not working or performing usual activities during the first two and the last two days.
Tastes of Jewish Tradition: Recipes, Activities & Stories for the Whole Family (JCC Milwaukee, Jan.) by Jody Hirsh, Idy Goodman, Aggie Goldenholz and Susan Roth, is a colorful and accessible guide offering readers a 'taste' of 11 different Jewish holidays, including Passover. Kerry Olitzky's Preparing Your Heart for Passover (Jewish Publication Society, Mar.) is more than just another haggadah; it is a primer on how one's spiritual life can be enriched by preparing for and understanding Passover ritual. For Reform Jews, there's the new, well-illustrated The Open Door: A Passover Haggadah, edited by Sue Levi Elwell and published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Feb.).
Easter (Christianity; celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox on April 7)
The holy day of Easter culminates 40 days of Lenten penitence, as Christians remember the ministry and suffering of Jesus. Easter itself is a joyful festival, commemorating Jesus' resurrection on the third day after his crucifixion. In the early church, Easter Saturday was as important as Easter Sunday, often featuring midnight baptisms and other rites, but contemporary observance focuses almost wholly on Easter Sunday. The church's celebration of Easter was superimposed on an ancient pagan rite of spring, so the contemporary religious celebration is accompanied by persistent pagan symbols such as eggs and rabbits (both associated with fertility).
In What Wondrous Love Is This: Hymns of Wonder and Worship to Remember His Love (Crossway, Feb.), Joni Eareckson Tada, John MacArthur and Robert and Bobbie Wolgemuth examine 12 significant Easter hymns, offering an accompanying CD of the music. For sermons, it's difficult to top the Holy Week and Easter homilies collected in The Undoing of Death by Fleming Rutledge (Eerdmans, Jan.). Centuries before there was Easter, there was Ostara, the pagan fertility festival adapted by the Christian Church into a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Edain McCoy's Ostara: Customs, Spells & Rituals for the Rites of Spring (Llewellyn, Feb.) offers a useful history of the pagan holiday, as well as tips for its contemporary celebration.
12 Rabi' al-Awwal Mawlid al-Nabiy (Islam)
This festival celebrates the anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in 571 CE. At the celebration, which begins in the evening, the Prophet's teachings are read aloud. In addition to the more obvious sacred expressions, the holiday also features gift-giving and feasting. First observed about 800 years ago, the celebration has steadily gained in popularity, though a minority of very conservative Muslims reject it because they feel that it calls too much attention to the human prophet.
There has been no shortage of books on Islam in recent months; the challenge is in separating the wheat from the chaff. One notable book on Islamic history is Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair's Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (Yale, Feb.), which was just released in paperback. Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (Modern Library, 2000) is enjoying well-deserved strong sales.
Wesak, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, is a major Buddhist festival, perhaps the most important of the year. Occurring on the first full moon in May, this is a day to practice kindness and perform generous deeds. In Sri Lanka, Buddhists wear white clothing and bring baskets of flowers to the monastery. Elsewhere, people decorate monasteries, donate money and food, and enjoy great parties in the street. In the temple, devotees might bathe a statue of the infant Buddha to symbolize the cleansing of all defilement.
While bookshelves are crammed with titles on Buddhist meditation and beliefs, there's little available on Buddhist devotional practices, which have not yet taken root in a major way in the United States. Still, interested readers can find some fine ethnographic descriptions of Buddha's Birthday celebrations in Diana Eck's A New Religious America: How a 'Christian Country' Has Now Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (Harper San Francisco, 2001).