| December 20—31|Hajj (Islam)One of the Five Pillars of Islam is hajj, or pilgrimage—the obligation of every Muslim to visit the holy city of Mecca once in a lifetime. More than two million Muslims make the journey every year. While there, Muslims don white clothing, symbolizing spiritual purity and the erasure of class or ethnic distinctions. Pilgrims circle counterclockwise seven times around the Ka'bah, a black cube located on a holy site that Muslims associate with both Ibrahim (Abraham) and the prophet Muhammad. At the end of the period of hajj, Muslims all over the world celebrate a joyous festival known as Id-ul-Adha.Recommended Reading: American journalist Asra Nomani describes her hajj experience in Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam, which came out in paperback in March (Harper San Francisco).| December 25 |
Christmas (Christianity)
Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Judaea, around the year 4 B.C.E. It has taken the coveted position as the premier holiday of the Western Christian world, replacing Easter as the most important feast day of the Christian year. Legends abound concerning the origins of many of the holiday's traditions: evergreens are said to be preferred as Christmas trees because their perennial green color symbolizes Christ's everlasting life, and decorations of lights on Christmas trees reflect beliefs in Christ as the light of the world. In the U.S., Christmas is distinguished by elaborate gift giving (to commemorate the gifts that the Magi brought to the infant Jesus) and feasting. Most Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas on January 7, 2007.
Recommended Reading: Christian women will appreciate the humor in Rhonda Rhea's I'm Dreaming of Some White Chocolate: Christmas Reflections with a Little Holly and a Lot of Jolly (Revell, Sept.). For a pagan approach to the season, check out Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by anthropologists Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Inner Traditions, Nov.).
| February 3 |
15 Shvat
Tu B'Shvat (Judaism)
Called "the New Year of trees," Tu B'Shvat marked the beginning of the fiscal year in ancient Israel, when farmers would be taxed on their harvests. Though a minor holiday in contemporary Judaism, Tu B'Shvat has taken on heightened significance in recent years with the global ecology movement. Today, Israeli schoolchildren plant trees on the holiday, and Jews all over the world celebrate the renewal of nature. Drawing on the practice of mystical rabbis in the 16th century, many contemporary Jews observe a special Tu B'Shvat seder with symbolic fruits, nuts and wine.
Recommended Reading: Drawing on both the cycles of nature and the rhythms of the Jewish year, Jill Hammer takes women through a year's worth of Torah readings in the beautifully designed JewishBook of Days: A Companion for All Seasons (JPS, Oct.). And in Inviting God In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holidays, Rabbi David Aaron explores Tu B'Shvat as well as nine other sacred days (Shambhala/Trumpeter, Aug.).
| February 14 |
Valentine's Day (Paganism and Christianity)
Although Valentine's Day is now an entirely secular holiday celebrating the triumph of romantic love (and chocolate), it began as a religious holiday for ancient Romans. It was the feast day of Juno Februa, Juno being the goddess of chastity. (Ironically, the feasting usually witnessed some ritualized sexual licentiousness.) The pagan day was eventually Christianized, as so many Roman holidays were, and came to be associated with at least two Christian martyrs who died on this day. In the United States, individuals began exchanging Valentine's cards at the end of the 19th century, and Valentine's Day now ranks behind Christmas as the holiday with the most cards exchanged.
Recommended Reading: Novelist Chet Raymo takes on some of the myths and legends of St. Valentine in Valentine:A Love Story, a refreshingly literary work of historical fiction (Cowley, Feb. 2007).