BON (Shinto and Buddhism)
During this "festival of souls," people in Japan visit the graves of their ancestors and offer them food and gifts, invoking their benevolent guardianship. At the beginning of the three-day holiday, Japanese light lanterns and place them in the doorways of their houses, inviting the spirits of their ancestors. At the festival's conclusion, celebrants float lanterns down rivers to the sea, symbolizing the peaceful departure of the ancestors to their own spirit realm. While Bon (also called Obon) is not an official state holiday in Japan, it is common for many businesses to close for the celebrations, which include folk dancing and fireworks.
Recommended Reading: C. Scott Littleton's Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places is an excellent primer on Japan's national religion (Oxford, 2002).
DHARMA DAY (Buddhism)
Asalha Puja, called "Dhamma Day" or "Dharma Day," commemorates the first teaching of the Buddha after his own enlightenment. It is believed that this sermon set the wheel of the dharma (teaching) in motion. The holiday emphasizes the Buddha's teaching, and sermons play an important part, as laypeople venture to monasteries to make offerings and listen to dharma talks. Traditionally, new monks are ordained around this time of year. In some predominantly Buddhist nations, particularly in Southeast Asia, Asalha Puja commences a three-month "rains retreat" during which monks—who otherwise wander and live as mendicants—remain in the monasteries, studying and meditating.
Recommended Reading: Asalha Puja is an important holiday in Theravada Buddhist nations like Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Laos. Interested readers will appreciate the amplified discussion of Theravada in Huston Smith and Philip Novak's Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Harper San Francisco, Apr.). The book is an expanded treatment of the Buddhism material found in Smith's classic textbook The World's Religions, which heavily favored Mahayana. For a daily dose of the dharma that is celebrated in the holiday, try David Crosweller's Buddhist Wisdom: Daily Reflections (Tuttle, May).
TISHA B'AV (Judaism) (9 Av 5763)
Tisha B'Av is a fast day when Jews mourn the loss of the Jerusalem temple, which was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and again in 70 C.E. Many of the ritual observances on Tisha B'Av are the same as if there had been a death in the family: eating, drinking and bathing are forbidden, as are sexual relations. In the synagogue, the lights are dimmed, and sometimes the walls are draped in black. The Book of Lamentations is chanted in low tones. Some Jews refrain from studying the Torah on this day, because the Torah would be a cause of joy. The Sabbath immediately following Tisha B'Av is called Shabbat Nahamu, or "Shabbat of Comfort."
Recommended reading: Reflective readers who want to record their experiences of Tisha B'Av and other Jewish holidays will prize the Jewish Holiday & Sabbath Journal, a spiral-bound workbook edited by Edward Hoffman (Chronicle, 2002). For school-age children, there's Jewish Holidays All Year Round: A Family Treasury, compiled by Ilene Cooper, Elivia Savadier and Josh Feinberg (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2002).
ASSUMPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY (Roman Catholic Christianity) and DORMITION OF THE THEOTOKOS (Orthodox Christianity)
This feast day honors Mary, the mother of Jesus, a figure Roman Catholics believe was "assumed" into heaven after her mortal life. Mary's body, like Jesus', did not rest in its tomb, but was taken into paradise. Feasts celebrating this assumption occurred as early as the fourth century, though the Catholic Church did not proclaim an official doctrine of the Assumption until 1950. In the East, Orthodox Christians celebrate a feast of Mary's dormition, or "falling asleep." In Orthodox tradition, Mary is called the Theotokos, or "God-bearer"; unlike Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians do not believe that she was free of original sin, though she was free of "actual" sin.
Recommended Reading: Feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson offers Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, July). For Protestant views, try the essays in Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, edited by Beverly Gaventa and Cynthia Rigby (Westminster John Knox, 2002). One of the most interesting recent books about Mary is actually a bestselling coming-of-age novel: Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees (Viking, 2002) offers a delightful subplot about Mary's power in women's lives.
GANESHA CHATURTHI (Hinduism)
Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, is one of the most popular deities of the Hindu pantheon, whose blessing is invoked before any major undertaking such as a wedding, major purchase or long journey. He is the "remover of obstacles" and bearer of good fortune, as well as a patron of the arts and sciences. In this 10-day festival, Hindus place a terracotta image of the god in their home shrines and shower him with offerings of food, incense and flowers. At the close of the festival, many towns, particularly in the Maharasthtra region of India, parade the god through the streets in a joyful public celebration.
Recommended Reading: Priya Hemenway's Hindu Gods: The Spirit of the Divine offers insight into the many deities of India (Chronicle, May).