Holidays have been around for thousands of years before they were known to us as they are now. They are a joyful time and thought of fondly. Families and loved ones gather around to exchange presents, have a get-together, or just enjoy each other’s company. Some of these holidays, however, have some rather dark origins. Here are 10 of the most popular holidays around the world and how they came to be.
New Year’s festivals go back to some 4,000 years ago to ancient Babylon. Ancient Egypt’s new year began with the annual flooding of the Nile, the Phoenicians and Persians started with the spring equinox, the Greeks had it on the winter solstice, and China’s new year occurred with the second new moon after the winter solstice. In ancient Babylon, they celebrated with a religious festival named Akito to honor the victory of Marduk, the sky god, over the evil sea goddess Tiamat. They would parade statues of gods around the city and perform rites. By doing this, the Babylonians believed the world to be cleansed and recreated by the gods. They also either crowned a new king or the old king continued to rule.
Legends claim the calendar was first created in the eighth century B.C. by Romulus, the founder of Rome. Over centuries, the calendar was no longer in sync with the sun. To solve this problem, emperor Julius Caesar consulted the best astronomers and mathematicians. He made the Julian calendar, making January 1 the first day of the year, named after Janus, the Roman god of chance and beginnings. The New Year is usually celebrated by attending parties, special foods, fireworks, the famous ball drop in New York, and making new year solutions.
October 31st of every year is celebrated with trick or treating, horror movies, and costume parties. The origins of this day date back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of summer and the harvest and the start of the winter. Celts believed that the boundaries between the worlds of the dead and the living blurred on the night before the new year. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III made November 1 a time to honor saints. It was a day that marked the end of summer and harvest and beginning of the cold winter, thus its association with death. By 1000 A.D, the church made November 2 All Souls’ day to honor the dead. It was a celebration filled with bonfires, parades, and costumes. The All Saints Day was called All Hallows or All Hallowmas, and its eve called All Hallows Eve, which eventually came to be called Halloween as we all know it.
Celts celebrated Samhain on the night of October 31, at a time they believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. They believed the presence of the spirits made it easier for the Druids or Celtic priests, to predict the future. Irish immigrants to the United States raised the popularity of Halloween during the 19th century. Later on, an American version of Halloween developed. Public events and ‘play parties’ were held. People would share stories of the dead, tell fortunes, and dance and sing. During the 20th century, Halloween became more popular and celebrated, with TV shows, books, and movies references, traditions like trick or treating and pumpkin carving.
Easter, also called Pascha or Resurrection Sunday, is a holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In the New Testament, it is described having occurred on the third day of his burial after crucifixion by the Romans around 30 A.D. It’s based on an ancient Pagan ritual and is also associated with Passover, a Jewish holiday, and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, which is described in the Old Testament. Christians refer to the week before Easter as “Holy Week” Unlike most holidays, Easter does not fall on the same set date each year. It is also not entirely a religious holiday, as some traditions that both Christians and non-Christians celebrate it. It includes egg hunting, the Easter Bunny, and Easter parades. It is speculated that the word “Easter” is taken from Eostre, the Teutonic goddess of fertility and spring.
The original Thanksgiving is believed to have occurred in the fall of 1621 when the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast. 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims attended it. Our knowledge of what the meal was comprised of is from a few lines in two books by Pilgrims: Mourt’s Relation by Edward Winslow and Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford.
The origins of Thanksgiving started with the Plymouth settlers, also known as the Pilgrims, as they arrived at an abandoned land where the Patuxet Indians used to live before dying of a plague. They had all died except for one, Squanto. After the Pilgrims suffered through a brutal winter that killed off half of them, Squanto taught them how to catch eel and grow corn. The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit also gave them food. The Pilgrims celebrated for three days after they grew their first harvest in 1621. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation. And in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving to be held each November.
St. Patrick’s Day
In honor of the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, it is a day of feasting and celebration held annually on the day of his death. Saint Patrick was a bishop and missionary in Ireland in the mid to late 5th century A.D. The day celebrates him and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It is believed St. Patrick was born in Roman Britain in the 4th century. According to the Declaration, which he supposedly wrote himself, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders. For six years, he worked as a shepherd and during that time he ‘found God’. After his escape, he went on to become a priest and returned to Ireland to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity.
One of the most popular and favorite holidays of the year is Christmas. Friends and family exchange gifts, decorate Christmas trees, attend church, share meals, and wait for Santa Claus. It’s a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus. The English term “Christmas” comes from “mass on Christ’s birth.” It is unclear why December 25 was assigned as Christmas, as the birthdate of Jesus is unknown. Sextus Julius Africanus, Christian traveler, and historian who influenced later writers of Church history among the Church Fathers, and the whole Greek school of chroniclers, first identified the date of Jesus’ birth in 221.
Another theory is that it was the Christianizing of the dies Solis invicti nati (day of the birth of the unconquered sun), a Roman holiday that celebrated the winter solstice. In the 9th century, Christmas began to be celebrated but didn’t hold the importance of other holidays like Good Friday or Easter. Roman Catholic churches celebrated the first Christmas mass at midnight. The act of gift giving dates back to the 15th century. Some European countries have St. Nicholas appears on December 6, his feast day, and bring candy and other gifts to children. Parts of Europe also exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, December 24, believing that Jesus was born on the night of the 24th. Christmas Day, December 25, has been a celebrated federal holiday in the U.S since 1870.
Diwali, also known as Deepawali or Deepavali, is one of the biggest Hinduism festivals. The name comes from the Sanskrit term, Deepavali, which means ‘row of lights.’ The holiday symbolizes “victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.” It lasts a total of five days from the 13th day of the dark half of the lunar month, Ashvina, to the second day of the light half of Karttika (usually late October to November). Each day has its traditions. In Bengal, the festival is dedicated to the dark goddess of strength, Kali. Jains celebrate the liberation of Mahavira. The Sikhs also celebrate at the same time Bandi Chhor Divas to mark the release of Guru Hargobind from a Mughal Empire prison. Newar Buddhists worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
The origins of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India more than 2,500 years ago, but no one knows when it exactly started. It’s believed to be a mix of harvest festivals as it’s mentioned in the Sanskrit texts that were completed in the second half of the 1st millennium CE. Rajasekhara, a Sanskrit poet, referred to Deepavali as Dipamalika in his 9th century Kavyamimamsa. The tales relating to Diwali usually are about the triumph of good over evil. One of the stories are of Lord Vishnu as the incarnation of Krishna killed the evil king, Narakasura of Pragjyotishpura and released 16000 captive girls. Other Hindus relate the start of Diwali as the day the goddess Lakshmi was born. The tales vary according to traditions and regions, but they all share the subject of righteousness.
Eid al-Adha is one of the major holidays in Islam. It marks when God appeared to Abraham, or Ibrahim to Muslims, in a dream and asked him to sacrifice his son to prove his faith and obedience. Just as Abraham was about to kill his son on mount Arafat, God stopped him and gave him a lamb to slaughter instead. The story is also known in Judaism as the Akedah and originates from the Torah. The date of Eid al-Adha varies from year to year. It falls on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah. Muslims sacrifice an animal, usually a cow, ram, camel, goat, or sheep, and divide the meat into three portions: the family, relatives, and the poor and needy. “Eid” means in Arabic ‘holiday’ or ‘festival,’ and “al-Adha” means sacrificial animal. Muslims celebrated with morning prayers, gathering of families and exchange of gifts and money. New clothes are bought for the holiday.
Mother’s Day origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, in honor of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele, and the Roman festival of Hilaria, or the Christian Mothering Sunday. The official Mother’s Day started in the 19th century by the efforts of Anna Jarvis, who after her mother’s death, began the celebration in honor of the sacrifices mothers made for their children. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe wore the Mother’s Day Proclamation, asking mothers to unite to promote world peace. In 1873, she campaigned for Mother’s Peace Day to be celebrated on June 2.
On February 14th, loved ones around the world send flowers, cards, chocolate, and all sorts of gifts to express their love. Valentines often portray Cupid, the god of love in Roman legends. This holiday has both Christian and ancient Roman origins. The Story goes that Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage as he saw single men made for better soldiers. Valentine then secretly performed weddings. When he was discovered, he was put to death. Others say Valentine was killed for helping Christians escape from Roman captivity.
Legends claim that he sent the first Valentine greeting to his jailer’s daughter, who he fell in love with. Supposedly, he signed his letter with “From your Valentine”, starting the famous saying. Other legends claim it was St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop. Some claim that the Christian church may have tried to “Christianise” the pagan holiday known as Lupercalia by placing St. Valentine’s feast day in February. Lupercalia was dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the Roman founders, and to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture. It was a fertility festival where all young women would place their names in an urn. The bachelors would then choose a name and become paired with the women for the year. This often ended in marriage. Valentine as we know it appeared in the 1500s. By the 1700s, they started using printed cards.