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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Calendars and Festivals - their Importance in our Lives

Calendars and Festivals

- their Importance in our Lives

Ms Shahin Bekhradnia
of the Zoroastrian Community, the World Congress of Faiths and
Oxford Round Table of Religions
Time affects us on so many levels that we are probably not aware of all the different ways in which we are affected by it unless we really stop to think. Let us consider time at the most basic level, and keep well away from thinking in terms of hours and minutes and missing an appointment, using a watch and the like. I'm talking here about the personal level of time: we are all aware of births and deaths because they touch us and our loved ones. In different cultures we commemorate them as birthdays, wedding anniversaries, death memorials and other key stages or rites of passage which are celebrated repetitively through our lives indicating the significance we attach to personal history. These personal histories bind families together giving them a sense of common ties and often common interests. They also all concern events that make us think about the meaning of LIFE - who we are, where we came from and where we are going to- in other words the passing of our biological presence on earth and our ability to procreate through which we defy time and enjoy a drop of immortality through our offspring.
On a larger scale, as societies or communities, we carry a collective history of experiences which, when great significance is attached to them, we tend to commemorate regularly. These may be nationally commemorated occasions such as Remembrance Day, days of independence, Bastille Day on 14 July in France and other revolution days. These are secular on commemoration days, which generally mark historical events. Additionally we also have seasonal associations with some of these occasions which may be celebrated only at a local level such as 1 May in Oxford as an ancient Spring Festival Day with maypole dancing and Morris Men, Well Dressing Day in a Yorkshire village, or Midsummer's Day at Stonehenge.
Within the nine major world religions events too are commemorated which have been attributed significance within a religious tradition or community. These may remember the birth or death of a figure of importance within the tradition, a historical event, or a natural phenomenon such as the full moon or the shortest day, a harvest festival or the first day of spring. We want to be able to remember when they occur so that the event may be properly commemorated.
The common thread between them is that they all rely on ways of reckoning the passing of time in a way, which is familiar to, and recognised by, those within the community practising this tradition. These are occasions, which bring people together in an atmosphere of shared experience and brotherhood. On the other hand the way of reckoning the passing of time may not be familiar to those outside the society which participates in the commemoration. It goes without saying that whether the occasion is a festive one or not determines whether we might call it a celebration, but whatever the mood of the event, it often occasions commensuality or sharing of food - a very basic symbol of communality. On the whole most religious occasions seem to give rise to dancing, singing, occasionally drinking and generally the celebration of the good things in life and these events are eagerly awaited and give meaning, form and security to people's lives, helping to shape their identity.
At some point in the distant past humans developed the ability to count, remember and record, and religious tradition has given birth to some of the oldest records of this ability. The wonderful cliché about how innovative and individual the human mind is, applies here to the remarkable range of different time reckoning systems that have evolved and become associated with religions.
Alongside the personal milestones such as births and deaths, the celestial bodies (notably the sun and moon, but also the constellations which have been observed in their movements) provide further points of reference The sun's movements have been correlated with certain important seasonal/agricultural cycles and have been noted as occurring with unfailing regularity. The difficulty within many religious traditions has been how to fit in the monthly moon returns of 29.5 rotations of the earth on its own axis producing night and day (which we call days) within the annual 365.2422 days it takes for the sun to return to the same position when it has been observed that the same climatic/seasonal conditions re-occur. Fitting in moon within sun movements makes for difficult mathematical jugglings, which have confounded many calendar calculations over the centuries and produced all sorts of arrangements for fitting in the extra or intercalary days necessitated by these considerations. In our western or Gregorian system we call these years with extra days "leap years".
The complications and importance attached to measuring time correctly according to the tenets laid down by one group of adherents and challenged by another group of adherents has even produced situations where such considerations alongside others reflect differences both intra as well as inter groups. Take for example the Catholic and Protestant Churches compared to some of the Orthodox Christian Churches. The former follow the Gregorian calendar and the latter the Julian which is 13 days behind the current Gregorian use in this century. One of the results of this difference is seen in the two traditions' dating of key events such as Christmas or Easter. This goes back to Julius Caesar who adopted a solar calendar based on a year being 365.25 days long with an additional intercalated day once every four years to keep the solar year in step with the seasons. This Julian calendar was taken over for Christian usage from the sixth century but dating back from the time of Christ, calling the years Anno Domini, 'year of our Lord'.
Unfortunately the Julian year turned out to be 11 minutes too long in relation to the solar cycle and by the 16th century this meant that the Julian year was over a week out of step with the actual solar cycle. So in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII reformed the old Julian calendar by wiping out the 10 extra days that had crept in and changing the rules for how often leap years occurred so as to ensure that in future the calendar kept in step with the solar cycle. In fact Protestant England did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 because of the revised calendar's Roman Catholic origins - a good indicator of just how political calendar issues can be. But the Gregorian calendar is now widely used across the world, although in most cases alongside other existing calendars. In China for example three systems are in use: lunar, Chinese solar and Gregorian solar. Other religious traditions have festivals computed according to two or more calendars used together. For example, in India two lunar calendar systems are used, the purimanta system (used mainly in the north) and the amanta (used in the south) as well as a solar calendar. Where the system of computing festivals relies on very complex calendar calculations there can, not surprisingly, be some variations from area to area in the date when it is held.
The dominance of the moon in all calendar calculations is reflected in the very word calendar at whose root is the Latin word Kalends means announcing or calling the arrival of the new moon and therefore a new month. A similar practice of recognising a new month by announcing the arrival of the new moon exists within Islam.
Staying with Islam, if you want to know why the Muslim festival of Ramadan moves slowly through the seasonal year and falls at present in winter in the North, this is because the Islamic calendar is strictly lunar and not tied to the solar linked season. The form of the lunar calendar as one without intercalation (adding of extra days to keep a calendar in tune with the solar cycle) was given by the Prophet in the Qur'an (Sura 9, verses 36-37).
The Jewish calendar has also followed a lunar system which has not tried to exactly box in the months into the solar year but instead has institutionalised the 11 extra days from each year to be saved up and inserted as an extra month of 30 days in 7 specific years out of a cycle of 19 years, viz. 3rd, 6th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th. As this is a system administered by acknowledged authorities and rigorously applied, as a system it seems to have been working satisfactorily, fulfilling the needs of the community to maintain festivals at a time of year appropriate to them.
The Zoroastrian tradition from which I originate has come up with a rather different method for intercalating, dating from the early centuries of the Common Era (a term I discuss later). From a very early period of our religious history, the solar year (reflecting the primal importance of the seasons' influence on agriculture) was adopted. In this system the solar year was organised as 12 regular months of 30 days. Each of these days, instead of having a number, bore (and of course still bears) a name reflecting one of the natural manifestations of the creator like water, wind, star, sky, earth and so on with a yazata or guardian spirit watching over it to which the daily prayer is dedicated. It did not have a weekly cycle of 7 days like that which came into Christianity from Judaism.
In this early system of 12 x 30 days the shortfall of 5.25 days was dealt with by adding an extra month periodically. Later this system was reformed and the solar year was finished off with a 5 or 6 day intercalary period at the end of the 360 days and the changeover to the new system of annual intercalary days as opposed to an extra month every 120 years caused some confusion: Did the year end at the end of the 360th day or the day before the festival of Nowruz on the 5/6th intercalary day? The issue was important as All Souls' Day and remembrance of the departed was a duty at the end of the year. As long as there was a central authority with power the system worked, but once the adherents became dispersed and any sort of centralising or official authority was lost, and particularly when some of our co-religionists went off to India, becoming known there as Parsees, the complications of change resulted in one system of calculation in India (Shenshai a corruption of Shahanshahi royal), while the Iranian community maintained another which the Parsees called Qadimi (or old). This discrepancy resulted in the two getting out of step by about one month and the whole monthly calendar gradually slipping behind the seasons.
For example, our most important Zoroastrian festival is the New Year, Nowruz, which means in Persian, new day. It is strictly associated with the spring solstice after which spring is really in the air and new life in nature begins afresh after a dormant winter. It is on the first day, Ormezd, (meaning the day of the Wise Lord and associated with the sun) of the first month of the year, called Farvardin. Because of the muddle over the exact calculations for the intercalary days, although still maintaining strictly the 30 named days of the month and the names of the months, it happened that Nowruz slipped back into the end of summer. A further reform of the calendar to bring it back firmly in line with the solar cycle was adopted by all but the most orthodox of Zoroastrians and became known as a Fasli (seasonal) calendar. This means that some Zoroastrians, almost exclusively Parsees as opposed to Iranian, still observe the Qadimi or old calendar festivals, sometimes alongside the Fasli ones just to be on the safe side, resulting in a Iranian style Nowruz at spring solstice (known by Parsees as Jamshidi Nowruz) and a late summer New Year in terms of the first day of the first month. Naturally all other festivals follow whatever system is adopted, resulting in significant variation between when Iranian Zoroastrians and Parsees celebrate festivals.
In Judaism many important festivals carry deeply historical associations such as Pesah, Sukkot, or Purim, and refresh the memories of community members about the traditions. In Shia Islam too, for example, Muharram and particularly Ashura is all about the historical martyrdom of Hosseyn grandson of the Prophet. In contrast the main Zoroastrian festivals tend exclusively to be associated with the elements and the seasons. Apart from the first day of spring festival of Nowruz, we have a fun water festival Tirgan in the summer when the day of Tir and the month of Tir coincide. Similarly when the day of Mehr (Mithra is associated with the sun as is day of Ormezd the first day of spring) and the month of Mehr coincide in the autumn at about the time of the solstice we have the Mehrgan festival which is like a harvest feast. We have a fire festival in the mid-winter 100 days before Nowruz (hence its name - Sadeh = 100) when our legends have it fire was discovered. And then we have the commemoration feasts in honour of the dead gahambar occurring 6 times yearly for 5 days when fruits of the land are blessed and distributed to the whole community from endowments. These are all reckoned by keeping up with daily prayers, which refer to the appropriate name of the 30 different, days attributed to nature within the month. There are a number of others of course I will have to omit because of limited time.
So much for the moon and the sun. But chronology is actually what concerns us with the millennium and this is another branch of time reckoning. Different dating systems where the years are numbered beginning from a specific point of significance have existed for a long time. One of the earliest known is the regnal system which goes for example like this 'In the 4th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus', or as in the case of Ancient Athens, the years were recorded by the name of the eponymous archon who changed every year - sensibly a written record was publicly maintained of the archon for each year. That is how AD was adopted as it means in the Year of Our Lord.
Sikh dating starts with the date of the birth of Guru Nanak, so 2000 will be 531 Nanak Shahi Sammat. A highly significant date is coming up for Sikhs next year with the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa or Sikh community in 1699 (Gregorian equivalent) by the 10th Guru, Gobind Singh. It has apparently very recently been decided to standardise the dates for the celebrations of all Sikh festivals so that they are commemorated on the same day each year. Jains have a tradition whose chronology also has a founder link because for the marking of all significant events in their religious history they date time from the year following the death of the last Tirthankara, Mahavira in the equivalent to 528 BC Gregorian equivalent. On this dating they are on the brink of celebrating the 2600th birth celebration of Mahavira in 2000/2001 Gregorian time since according to tradition he was born in 599 BC.
Not all traditions, of course, link their chronology to births and deaths. The Jewish calendar, for example begins in the year when creation is traditionally said to have occurred and in the Gregorian year 2000, the Jewish year will have reached 5760. Hindu chronology is rooted in a view of time cycles or ages, each of which has numerous subdivisions. For Hindus using the Vikrami Sarnvat calendar it will be 2056 in the year called 2000 in the Gregorian calendar, although the calendrical system is much older than this date, which probably reflects a reform. It should be said that Jains use the same Vikrami-Samvat system for most purposes. The Shaka era was adopted for the solar Indian National Calendar in 1957-8, which began in 78 CE so in the Gregorian year 2000 it will be 1922 Shaka era.
Within Islam an interesting situation exists where Sunnis observe a year based on the migration of the prophet from Mecca to Medina calculated in lunar months Qamari whereas Shia adherents of Islam calculate their year from the same event but the calculation is based on the solar year Shamsi. The choice of Shias to revert to a solar year may reflect the older Iranian tradition. The difference in length of a lunar year which consists of 12 months of 29.5 days and is 11 days short of a solar year means that there are two alternative ways to date the Hejira or migration from Mecca to Medina, depending on the tradition to which you adhere.
A glance at a Zoroastrian diary offers a number of choices in chronology: we have the traditional regnal one beginning with the year equivalent to 631 Gregorian which marks the beginning of the reign of the last Zoroastrian king of Iran, Yazdegird III which, in the Gregorian year 2000 puts us in 1379/80 Yazdegirdi or Shahenshahi. This name can no longer be printed for political reasons in the Iranian Zoroastrian diaries but is still used in Parsee publications. We also find the year 2000 Gregorian will be equivalent to 3737 Zoroastrian era based on a speculative date for Zoroaster's birth, which is in itself an extremely contentious issue. The reality is, as in other traditions that the Gregorian date also appears, as does the national Iranian Hejri Sharnsi (solar) calendar and these are almost exclusively used. The two chronologies with Zoroastrian associations merely serve a symbolic function.
The Baha'i era begins with the year of the declaration of the Bab in the equivalent Gregorian year of 1844 so in the Gregorian year 2000 it will be 157 Baha'i era. Buddhists vary in practice from country to country, on the whole not seeing the dating system as very significant, although Theravadins use a calendar dating from what they believe to be the year of the Buddha's death in 544 BCE and in the Gregorian year 2000 for them the date will be 2543.
Clearly the different chronologies and calendars are of significance to the followers of the different faiths and it has been argued that it is inappropriate for everyone to be obliged to use the Gregorian dating with its Christian origin and its accompanying initials standing for Before Christ and Anno Domini. There has been a move of late in some countries such as the USA to use the initials CE and BCE referring to Common Era and Before Common Era, which I used a few minutes ago, meaning that from 1AD, the world entered an era common to Jews and Christians. But that does not really help other faiths and if one were to take all faiths into account, the Common Era would have to be dated from the arrival of the most recent of them.
A universal calendar?
There have been a number of attempts over the centuries to encourage the adoption of a universal global calendar. Indeed this idea is a key one in Baha'i tradition. It is also one which has been actively promoted by people working in industries like finance and computing who find the existence of the more than 40 calendars used in the world a practical inconvenience. It is perhaps unlikely that these rationalising initiatives will ever completely succeed, however, because of the depth of religious and cultural feeling attached to the various calendars by those who follow them.
Increasing awareness of the faiths' festivals
In multi-faith countries there is increasing pressure to be able to give the dates of the festivals a long time in advance so that, for example, people setting school exams or scheduling events to which they hope people of all faiths will be able to come will know what days to try and avoid. It can be surprisingly complex, however, to draw up a calendar for all faiths' festivals far in advance. Some traditions, such as Judaism, can give dates as far in advance as they could be needed. With other traditions, the matter can be more complex.
The Shap Working Party on World Religions has for many years produced a calendar of religious festivals but explains that it cannot be produced until about six months before the start of the year in question. A glance at calendar sites on the Internet shows very patchy information available for the year 1999 and almost none for 2000. This has proven a little frustrating in the context of planning for the year 2000, Gregorian/Christian calendar, in the UK for organisations like the New Millennium Experience Company, who have been trying to schedule events taking account of the key dates of the major traditions in Britain.
It would be helpful if we could find ways to encourage organisations in their desire to be aware at least of the major festivals of the different faiths because the rhythm of the religious year is very significant for people who belong to a tradition. At a simple level it is the shape of our life: like a mould into which our spirit was poured when we were children and the shape of which has left its impress. Even those whose connection with their tradition is weak are held by the bonds of communal celebration or sorrow and for those, whose link is strong, participation in festivals has great meaning. For these reasons, it is particularly important that employers and schools and others should recognise why, for example, a Jain might want to take time off for Mahavira-jayanti or the end of Paryushana-parva or a Sikh at Baisakhi.
In countries like Britain the national calendar has developed in the context of the dominance of one particular tradition, in this case Christianity. This means that certain bank holidays are linked particularly to Church year festivals: Christmas, Pentecost (Whitsun), Good Friday and Easter. This enables Christians to participate in most of their major festivals without booking special leave. For people of other faiths it can sometimes be problematic to get time off - particularly if the festival extends for longer than a day. The Commission for Racial Equality has noted a number of cases over the years where Muslim employees have felt pressured into working during Eid. Members of smaller traditions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism face the addition challenge that many employers are not at all familiar with their festivals and are uncertain if leave time should be given. The Inter Faith Network has discussed with the TUC the desirability of developing guidance for employers on festivals as part of good equal opportunities policy and hopes to pursue this idea.
This immediately brings to mind a personal experience: a mere two weeks ago while attending our water festival celebration at our temple, as a congregation we were asked to indicate our feelings about changing the date of celebrations of festivals to take into account the fact that few people living here can comfortably get away from professional and family obligations during the working week. The alternative to the observance of the correct days would be to celebrate the festivals over the weekend nearest to the correct date, thus allowing more of the community to participate. This discussion demonstrates clearly the sort of erosion of traditions that a community undergo in diaspora unless accommodated and understood better.
It should also be said that our duties to departed souls requires much more attention than is the norm in this country as we observe the day of the month on which the death occurred every month for the first year and thereafter for 30 years annually on the day and the month anniversary. These are matters of deep psychological importance and it is to be hoped that they will be sympathetically understood by employers, teachers and others.
2000 as a possible opportunity for highlighting a festival from each faith community
The Government has been trying to ensure that Millennium celebrations are inclusive, that alongside the marking of the Christian significance of 2000, there are opportunities for people of all faiths to mark the date in the national calendar and to highlight aspects of their faith tradition in ways which bring about greater mutual understanding and ability to work together in the coming years.
Among the ideas that have been suggested is each faith community highlighting one festival event in its own calendar and inviting guests from other faiths, politicians and others. For some faiths, the new year festival might be the most significant, for others a different festival would seem appropriate. Perhaps later today there may be a chance for the panel and audience to discuss this idea.

Editor's note: The speaker referred to the Shap Calendar of Festivals and the Shap book Festivals in World Religions (RMEP, 1988). Information about these is available from the Shap Working Party, c/o The National Society's RE Centre, 36 Causton Street, London SWIP 4AU. Tel: 0171-932-1194. 

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