Moveable Feasts

The full moon rising over a hill
The full moon rising; image by Andrew McMillan, Public domain

Passover, Easter and Ramadan

This year is one of those rare years when Passover, Easter and Ramadan coincide. As this happens only every 30 years, most of us will experience this twice or at best three times in our lifetimes. For most people, our practice is confined to just one of these celebrations – unless one operates in a sphere where multi-observance is important. Personally I greatly enjoyed teaching English in multicultural Leicester where we celebrated each other’s feasts with great gusto and plenty of delicious food.

Trying to understand each other’s festivals is a good way to appreciate the history and values of a religious group. There are also some universals which are to do with the fact that we live on the same planet, even if we experience seasons differently.

Judaism and Passover

Of the three religions all celebrating last week, Judaism has the oldest recorded traditions. Every year, Jews celebrate Passover, which commemorates the story of Moses who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt to the promised land. Moses told them to eat a meal of roasted lamb and unleavened bread before setting off as migrants out of Egypt. So Jews eat a meal in memory of this (called Seder). 

Table set for passover seder
Table set for passover seder in the Synagogue of St Avold, NE France; image by Jean-Marc Pascolo, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

This takes place in the first month of the year (Nisan), on the first full moon in spring. This means that it moves around the days of the week. It is not always on a Friday as it was on 15th April. But it is never on a Thursday because that would then push another festival (Rosh Hashanah) onto the day after Sabbath, which is forbidden.

Christianity and Easter

Surprisingly, the Christian commemoration of the Last Supper of Jesus (a Seder) is always on a Thursday. This takes place during Holy Week when Christians follow the story of what Jesus did from Palm Sunday (when the crowds welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem) through to being killed by crucifixion on Friday, buried, and then rising again (resurrection) on Sunday. 

Hot Cross Buns on a wire rack
Hot Cross Buns, traditionally served to break the fast on Good Friday, on a wire rack; image by Shannon Hobbs, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The name of this festival in Latinate languages – Paques, Pascua – comes from the Hebrew pesca, to jump over or pass over. The English word Easter is because the missionising Christians took over an existing spring festival celebrating a goddess Eostra.

Although it can occur on any date between 22 March and 21 April, Easter is always in the spring, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after 21 March. Spring and celebrating the new life of Jesus occur together.

Islam and Ramadan

For Muslims, the fast of Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on when it falls. Ramadan remembers the month the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is the time when all the faithful fast from sunrise to sunset, and then eat a special evening meal, iftar, together each evening. It is also a time to give alms, and to go to the mosque more regularly for special times of teaching and prayer, especially on Fridays.

A table prepared for Iftar during Ramadan
A table prepared for Iftar during Ramadan in Sylhet, Bangladesh; image: AbuSayeed, licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Strictly, Ramadan starts when the crescent moon (the hilal) is sighted by whoever is in charge of the Islamic observances in that country, so it can vary slightly country by country, as even clouds can get in the way. The fact that Ramadan takes place in different seasons means that Muslims experience the fast differently: it is easier in the cooler season than in the hottest season, for example. Latitude makes a difference to the length of day: so 12 hours of fasting at the Equator, but pity the observant Muslim in northern latitudes when Ramadan is in the summer.

Observing lunar, luni-solar and solar calendars

Thus on 15 April, Muslims going to the mosque for Ramadan Friday prayers would have passed Jews about to eat Seder, and Christians just emerging from Good Friday services. This coincidence happens only every 30 years, because Islam observes a lunar calendar, whereas Judaism observes a luni-solar calendar, and Christianity observes a solar calendar. 

With a lunar calendar, the lengths of the months alternate, one of 29 days then one of 30 days, but 12 months then add up to 354 days, which is short by 11 days of the calendar year. So Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year, and takes 30 years to get back to the same season.

But the turning of the moon around the earth in a lunar month is not commensurate with the 365 plus days it takes the earth to revolve around the sun. If a society bases its festivals according to the agricultural seasons, but counts the months from the moon, eventually the festivals will be out of sync with what they are supposed to be celebrating. The Jews realised that Passover could thus drift out of the spring and sorted this by allowing the Chief Rabbi to declare an extra month, Adar.

Seasonal Drift

The Romans were battling with a similar problem of Saturnalia no longer coinciding with mid-winter, so Emperor Julius Caesar fixed this with the Julian calendar that allows a leap year every fourth year. After some centuries of use, it was realised that even this calendar was getting out of sync with the seasons, because the earth’s orbit is actually 365.2424 days around the sun. Pope Gregory in 1582 fixed this by calculating leap years differently – they do not occur on the end of century years unless it is divisible by 400. In 2,000 years, the Julian calendar has 500 leap years while the Gregorian calendar has 485.

For historians of periods after 1582 until mid-18th century, it is important to note that different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at different times so there may be instances where a dated diplomatic dispatch looks like it is dated BEFORE the document it is replying to. Great Britain only adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, and skipped the days between 2nd and 14th September of that year, which is worth noting for ancestry research when looking for significant dates that occurred that year.

The Eastern Orthodox churches retained the Julian calendar, which is why those churches usually celebrate Easter a week or so after Western churches. So Ukrainians and Russians will be celebrating it this coming Sunday. It is a pity that Christians do not observe the ancient Arabic tradition of having some months of the year when fighting is forbidden.

Calendars and the naming of months

The naming of months in different calendars – along with the timing of the celebrations – often has close links to the seasons. Traditional Arabic names of the months for example, correspond to the season when the cattle would be put out to graze, the season when the camels were pregnant etc. These original associations would not be so appealing once Islam moved to territories with different farming practices and seasons, like tropical Indonesia.

I experienced this seasonal dissonance when moving to the southern hemisphere. Easter in Kent is associated with spring, the first flowers, the daffodils and primroses. In South Africa, April is the beginning of autumn, but there is no leaf fall in the subtropical areas like Durban. In the Cape, it is at the end of their driest season. Christian festivals are positioned to fit the northern hemisphere year with Easter and the Jewish Passover deliberately placed to coincide with the new life of spring.

For Instance…

The names of the months in local African languages signify the yearly cycles of the environment. For instance in Xhosa:

EnglishXhosaExplanation of the months
JanuaryEyoMqungumonth of the tambuki grass
FebruaryEyoMdumbamonth of the swelling grain
MarchEyoKwindlamonth of the first fruits
AprilUtshazimpunzimonth of the withering pumpkins
MayUCanzibe / EyeCanzibemonth of Canopus
JuneEyeSilimelamonth of the Pleiades
JulyEyeKhala / EyeNtlabamonth of the aloes
AugustEyeThuphamonth of the buds
SeptemberEyoMsintsimonth of the coast coral tree
OctoberEyeDwarhamonth of the lilypad or the tall yellow daisies
NovemberEyeNkangamonth of the small yellow daisies
DecemberEyoMngamonth of the acacia thorn tree

There are two months named from the brightest stars (Canopus and the Pleiades) visible in the southern hemisphere, and the rest are from what was flourishing in the land at that season.

Canopus as seen from ISS
Canopus as seen from ISS; image: NASA, Public Domain
The pleiades (Seven Sisters)
The Pleiades; image by Bob Familiar, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0

What’s In Season?

In the UK, how far most of us have moved from seasonal reverence for nature! I guess the average person is more alert to TV seasons: the start of Strictly Come Dancing or of the Champions League. But there is wisdom in how our ancestors observed the seasons, and how they moved their feasts to ensure they could enjoy the celebrations.