Ascension of the Bahá'u'lláh (The Bahá'í Faith)
The Bahá'í Faith was founded by Bahá'u' lláh ("glory of God"), a 19th-century Iranian spiritual leader whom Bahá'ís regard as the most recent in a line of great prophets stretching back to Abraham. Bahá'ís celebrate nine annual festivals, including the Day of Ascension, which marks the anniversary of Bahá'u'lláh's 1892 passage into immortality. On this day, Bahá'ís suspend work and celebrate around the world.
Recommended Reading:The new biography The Story of Bahá'u'lláh: Promised One of All Religions is a flattering portrait written by Druzelle Cederquist, a practicing Bahá'í. Although it is more hagiography than a critical or even objective representation, readers can learn about the basic facts of Bahá'u'lláh's life as well as gain some insights into the religion he founded (Bahá'í Publishing, June).
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, on Mount Sinai. Tradition says that King David was born and died on this holiday. The Book of Ruth, which relates the conversion of a Moabite woman who became David's ancestress, is chanted aloud on Shavuot. In modern times, the holiday holds special meaning because it was on this day in 1967 that the Old City of Jerusalem was officially opened to the public following the Six-Day War. In the U.S. today, Shavuot is a quiet festival; many synagogues hold confirmation ceremonies for the youth, celebrating their commitment to study and live the Torah.
Recommended Reading:Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi's spiritual guide Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practicereceived a starred review in PW for its candid but loving engagement with Jewish tradition and ritual (Riverhead, Mar. 3). In August, Adams Media releases The Everything Torah Book: All You Need to Understand the Basics of Jewish Law and the Five Books of the Old Testament byYaacov Menken.
Midsummer is the ancient pagan celebration of the summer solstice, when we experience the longest day and shortest night of the year. It is considered one of the four lesser Sabbats of the Wiccan calendar, along with the winter solstice and the spring and summer equinoxes. It's a common misconception that the summer solstice marks the beginning of summer, which actually occurs on May Day; the solstice occurs halfway between the beginning and end of the season, resulting in the name "midsummer." Traditionally this festival has been a joyous, even raucous, celebration, with giant bonfires and all-night revelry. Christians attempted to co-opt the pagan celebration into the Feast of St. John the Baptist, set on June 24, but with far less success than the church's appropriation of midwinter rituals into the feast of Christmas.
Recommended Reading:Silver RavenWolf, possibly the bestselling author in the Wiccan market, has just released A Witch's Notebook: Lessons in Witchcraft (Llewellyn, May). PW called RavenWolf's five-month study program "a wonderful guidebook for readers who are serious about beginning a Wiccan spiritual journey, complete with an extensive herbal and spell guide." For the younger set, practicing teen witch Gwinevere Rain offers Confessions of a Teenage Witch: Celebrating the Wiccan Life, with special sections on the calendar, Sabbats and festivals (Perigee, July 5).
Wassana (Theravada Buddhism)
Wassana marks the beginning of the three-month Rains Retreat for monks and nuns. Celebrated at the start of the full moon, Wassana is an annual opportunity for Theravada Buddhists to devote themselves more fully to study, meditation and service. During this season, lay men and boys can leave their regular work to participate in monastic life; to do so is considered meritorious. Wassana is practiced in Theravada Buddhist countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. On October 16 this year, the season will end with the festival of Pavarana, a great celebration featuring religious rites (special offerings at temples) as well as family visits, feasting, and song and dance.
Recommended Reading: American professor Stephen Asma's memoir The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha chronicles his recent sojourn in Cambodia and introduces Theravada Buddhism to Western readers (Harper San Francisco, June).
There are many local and regional festivals in Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan. In this taisai ("large festival"), the theme is purification from sins. Large rings of grasses and reeds are placed around the outer perimeter of Shinto shrines. Penitents must walk through the ring to enter the shrine, thus demonstrating their spiritual cleansing. Rites of purification are central to Shinto, which requires worshippers (at all times of the year) to cleanse the hands and mouth before entering any temple or shrine.
Recommended Reading:C. Scott Littleton's 2002 book Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places was a superb, lavishly illustrated introduction to Shinto history, beliefs and practices, including holy days. Now Oxford has collected that along with four other short introductions to individual faith traditions into Eastern Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto. Edited by Michael Coogan, it's one-stop shopping for students of Eastern religions (Oxford, May 15).