Please note that many holidays begin the evening before their indicated date. Scroll down for descriptions of holidays in alphabetical order.
Al-Hijra/Muharram – New Year
Al-Hijra, the Islamic New Year, is celebrated on the first day of Muharram, the month in which Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE (known as the Hijra). The holiday is also known simply as Muharram. Unlike the important holidays of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, there are few rituals associated with Islamic New Year. There are no prescribed religious observances. Most Muslims regard the day as a time for reflection on the Hijira and on the year to come. In modern times, some Muslims exchange greeting cards to celebrate the holiday. Read more.
Ashura is celebrated on the ninth and tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic Calendar. Ashura is an Arabic word meaning “ten”, and it is a day of optional fasting. This is the day on which God saved Moses and the Israelites from Pharaoh in Egypt as he crossed the Red Sea (the Exodus day). Jews in the city of Madina fasted only one day (on Yom Kippur) so the Prophet Muhammad would fast two. According to Islamic tradition Prophet Muhammad recommended fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram. This is also the day on which Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali, was martyred by the forces of a corrupt and cruel governor in the Battle of Karbala. For both Sunni and Shia Muslims, 10th of Muharram marks a day of remembrance of Hussain’s martyrdom. For Shia Muslims in particular, this is a day of mourning, expressed in a more dramatic fashion than the Sunnis. Read more.
Eid ul-Adha, which occurs approximately seventy days after Eid-ul-Fitr, commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael) for Allah. Eid ul-Adha celebrations continue for three days. The day it begins is the day after the pilgrims in Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia by Muslims worldwide, descend from Mount Arafat. Like Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha begins with a short prayer followed by a sermon (Khutba). Men, women, and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing. Muslims, who can afford to, sacrifice their best domestic animals (usually sheep, but also camels, cows, and goats) as a symbol of Prophet Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) sacrifice. This sacrificial act and the meat are called “Udhiya” or “Qurbani”. A large portion of the meat is given to the poor and hungry so they can all join in the feast. The remainder is cooked for the celebrations in which relatives and friends participate. The spirit of giving and charitable gestures in the Muslim community is heightened during Eid ul-Adha as Muslims ensure that no impoverished person is left without sacrificial food during this period. Read more.
Eid-ul-Fitr is an Islamic holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Fiṭr means “to break the fast” and therefore symbolizes the breaking of the fasting period. On the day of Eid-ul-Fitr, which is the first day of the month of Shawwal, a typical Muslim family is awake very early. After praying the daily morning (Fajr) prayer, they enjoy a light breakfast, symbolizing the end of Ramadan. Many Muslims dress in fancy traditional clothes early in the morning and then head to special prayers in congregation held only on this occasion in mosques or in large open areas, stadiums or arenas. The prayer is generally short and is followed by a sermon (Khutba). Worshippers greet and embrace each other in a spirit of peace and love after the congregational prayer. Festivities then follow that involve visiting the homes of relatives and friends.
On Eid ul-Fitr, Muslims celebrate the achievement of enhanced piety. It is a day of forgiveness, moral victory, brotherhood, fellowship, and unity. Muslims celebrate not only the end of fasting, but also thank God for the strength He gave them throughout the month of Ramadan to help them practice self-control. It is a time of giving and sharing. Read more.
Hanukkah (alternately spelled Chanukah), meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, refers to the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. The modern home celebration of Hanukkah centers around the lighting of the hanukkiyah, a 9-branched candelabra or oil lamp. One candle is lit first every night, and is then used to light the number of candles corresponding to the night of the holiday, with an additional candle lit each night. Foods prepared in oil including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are eaten, and special songs and games are played. Read more.
Lag B’Omer is a minor holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the omer. The omer is the 49-day period in between Passover and Shavuot. The omer is a period of time in which some mourning practices are traditionally observed, such as not cutting one’s hair. Lag B’Omer, though, is a festive day, and is often celebrated with a bonfire. One explanation for the mourning during the omer and the celebrations on Lag B’Omer is that students of Rabbi Akiva, a great Jewish leader during the 1st-2nd century, were struck by a plague during the omer period, but the plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, Lag B’Omer.
Lailat ul Bara’ah
Lailat ul Bara’h (Night of Forgiveness) takes place two weeks before Ramadan. It is the time when Muslims seek forgiveness for their sins and believe that on this night one’s destiny is fixed for the year ahead. On this night, Muslims pray and ask God for forgiveness either at the mosque or at home. Many spend the entire night praying. Muslims may also visit the graves of relatives, and giving to charity is traditional. Read more.
Lailat ul Kadr
Lailat ul Kadr is considered the holiest night of the year for Muslims, and is traditionally celebrated on the 27th day of Ramadan. It is known as the “Night of Power,” and commemorates the night that the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, beginning with the exhortation, “Read! In the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists),” in Surat Al-Alaq (Muhsin Khan translation).
Muslims observe this occasion with study, devotional readings, and prayer, as the night’s holiness is believe to make it a very good time for prayers to be answered. The last ten days of Ramadan are considered a particularly spiritually important time, as any of the days may be Lailat ul Kadr, and thus worshippers strive to be especially observant during this period. Some Muslims participate in a spiritual retreat called itikaf, where they spend all ten days in the mosque reading the Quran and praying. Read more.
Lailat al Miraj
Lailat al Miraj commemorates the Prophet Muhammad’s nighttime journey from Mecca to the ‘Farthest Mosque’ in Jerusalem where he ascended to heaven, was purified, and given the instruction for Muslims to pray five times daily. Today Lailat al Miraj is observed by Muslims as one of the most important events in the history of Islam. Muslims may attend special prayer services at a mosque, or they may commemorate the holiday privately at home by telling the story to children or reciting special nighttime prayers. Read more.
Mawlid an Nabi
Mawlid an-Nabi (also known as Milad an-Nabi) celebrates Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. This occasion was not celebrated in the early times of Islam and is therefore unevenly celebrated today, with great and festive celebrations in many Muslim countries (e.g. Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey) and none in others (e.g. Saudi Arabia). Poetry in praise of God and the Prophet are recited with love and devotion. Since the early Muslim community didn’t celebrate the birthday of the Prophet, many scholars consider these festivities as Bid’ah (innovation). Other scholars justify it as it is an opportunity to bring Muslims together and highlight the message, mission, character, and life of Prophet Muhammad. Read more.
Pesach, or Passover, is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavuot and Sukkot). Passover celebrates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). The first and last days of the holiday (first two days and last two days in communities outside of Israel) are days on which traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work. Work is permitted on the intermediate days.
Throughout Passover, Jews eat matzah — flat, cracker-like unleavened bread made from only flour and water, and cooked very quickly — and they refrain from eating chametz, or leavened grain products like typical bread. Many clean their homes thoroughly before the holiday begins, to compeletely remove all chametz from their possession. The removal of chametz and the eating of matzah commemorate that the Jews left Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise.
On the first night of Passover (first two nights in communities outside Israel), Jews have a seder, a festive meal that involves eating symbolic foods and reading texts to tell and discuss the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The seder is one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals. Read more.
Ramadan is celebrated during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Fasting for the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith. Ramadan is regarded as a commemoration of the Prophet Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) first revelation of the Qur’an. The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar, which means that Ramadan shifts by about 10 days every year. During Ramadan, observing Muslims refrain from food, drink and intimate relations from dawn until dusk. During Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to increase their worship, spirituality, volunteering, compassion, charity, and gift giving.
The daily life of a Muslim in Ramadan involves waking up before dawn to eat, prepare for the fast and make morning prayers. While the sun is up, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations. Throughout the day, Muslims continue to worship as much as possible while fulfilling their daily obligations like work. Reading the Qur’an every day during Ramadan is a big part of worship for most Muslims. After sunset, the evening prayers are recited and the fast is broken in a meal known as iftar. Communal iftar meals are often held. Read more.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life. Families often gather for festive meals on Rosh Hashanah. Many go to synagogue in the mornings, and some in the evenings as well, for prayer services that include special liturgy. The shofar, a ram’s horn that makes a trumpet-like sound, is blown during Rosh Hashanah morning services as a wake-up call to introspect and repent. Rosh Hashanah is portrayed in traditional liturgy as the day in which God examines one’s deeds and inscribes one’s fate for the upcoming year. Another traditional theme of Rosh Hashanah is God’s sovereignty. Traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work on Rosh Hashanah. The two days of Rosh Hashanah usher in the Ten Days of Repentance, also known as the Days of Awe, which culminate in the major fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Read more.
Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks” and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which occurs seven weeks after Passover. Shavuot, like many other Jewish holidays, began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. In ancient times, Shavuot, along with Pesach and Sukkot, was a pilgrimage festival during which Israelites brought crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it is a celebration of Torah, education, and actively choosing to participate in Jewish life. Traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work on Shavuot. Many go to synagogue in the mornings, and some in the evenings as well, for prayer services. It is traditional to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Another common Shavuot practice is to stay up all night on the first night of the holiday studying Torah. Read more.
Shemini Atzeret takes place on the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot, and is a day on which traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work and travel. In synagogue services, Jews recite a prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret.
On Simchat Torah, which immediately follows Shemini Atzeret, Jews celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah publicly in synagogues, and begin the cycle anew. As part of the celebration, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark where they are stored, and carried around the synagogue seven times as congregants dance and sing around them. This is done both in the evening and the morning of the holiday. During prayer services on Simchat Torah morning, the concluding section of the Torah, from the book of Deuteronomy, is chanted, and immediately following, the opening section of the Torah, from the book of Genesis, is chanted. Simchat Torah is a day on which traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work. Read more.
Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” commemorates the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai, and is also an agricultural festival to give thanks for the fall harvest. Prior to Sukkot, Jews erect a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut, in which they eat festive meals and sometimes sleep in during the holiday. Dwelling in these temporary structures is reminiscent of the temporary dwellings used while wandering through the desert. Inviting guests to meals in one’s sukkah is a common practice. Sukkot is the only Jewish festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice. During the first two days of Sukkot (first day only in Israel), traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work and travel. Many attend synagogue services in the mornings that involve special festival prayers, including rituals in which four plant species—three kinds of leaves, and a citron fruit – are held and shaken together. This ritual act is performed each day of the holiday, and is often seen as symbolic of fertility and of unity. Read more.
Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning and a fast day, which primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second ancient Temples in Jerusalem, which were the focal points of Jewish life until their destruction. Both were destroyed on the ninth day of the Hebrew calendar month of Av, the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. The book of Lamentations is chanted in synagogues on the evening of Tisha B’Av. Read more.
Tu B’Shvat or the “New Year of the Trees” is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the 15th (tu) of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. Scholars believe that originally Tu B’Shvat was an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring. In the 17th century, Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) created a ritual for Tu B’Shvat known as a Tu B’Shvat seder, which involves eating symbolic foods and reading and discussing texts, similar to a Passover seder. Today, many Jews hold a modern version of the Tu B’Shvat seder each year. The holiday also has become a tree-planting festival in Israel, in which Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of loved ones and friends. Read more.
Waqf al Arafa – Hajj Day
This day is the culminating event of the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Day of Arafat falls on the second day of pilgrimage rituals. At dawn of this day, nearly two million Muslim pilgrims will make their way from Mecca to a nearby hillside and plain called Mount Arafat and the Plain of Arafat. It was from this site that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, gave his famous Farewell Sermon in his final year of life. During the entire day, from dawn until sunset, Muslim pilgrims stand in earnest supplication and devotion, praying for God’s abundant forgiveness. Tears are shed readily as those who gather make repentance and seek God’s mercy, recite words of prayer and remembrance, and gather together as equals before their Lord. Muslims around the world who are not participating in the pilgrimage often spend this day in fasting and devotion. Read more.
Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Fasting on Yom Kippur enables one to put aside their physical desires to concentrate on spiritual needs through prayer, repentance and self-improvement. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from those whom they have wronged throughout the past year. Yom Kippur is a time dedicated to reconciliation with God, fellow human beings, and oneself. Many attend prayer services on the evening of Yom Kippur, and during the entire next day of Yom Kippur. Prayer services conclude with a blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn, at sundown at the end of the holiday. Traditionally-observant Jews refrain from work on Yom Kippur. Read more.
Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is dedicated to memorializing Holocaust victims and remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust. It falls on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Many Jewish communities hold commemorative programs that feature a talk by a Holocaust survivor.