Click here to skip to content
Elements of Abrahamic Faiths banner

Living: Festivals

Annual religious festivals define the shape of the year inside and outside the religious community. Periods of fasting feature in all three religions.



Rosh Hashanah (autumn) celebrates the Creation and is the main Jewish new year. The period finishes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of prayer and fasting. Pesach, or Passover (April) recalls the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. A special family meal is held, with unleavened bread (without a rising agent), referring to the hurried exit of the Israelites. Shavuot, or Pentecost (May/June), commemorates Moses' receiving of the Ten Commandments. Sukkot, or Tabernacles (October), is a week-long harvest festival. Some other festivals include Purim (February-March) which celebrates the survival of Persian Jews from a plot to kill them, a time of gifts, charity, and merriment and Hanukkah, the festival of lights in November/December.



The main Christian festivals are Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and most important of all Easter, commemorating his crucifixion (on Good Friday) and resurrection (on Easter Day, the Sunday).

Christmas is celebrated on 25 December (7 January in Orthodox churches). Many Christians attend Midnight Mass early that morning. Christmas is the traditional time in western Europe for families to get together over a festive meal. Friends and relatives exchange gifts, and a small pine tree may be installed in a house and decorated. The month leading up to Christmas is called Advent.

The date of Easter (March/April) varies according to the moon. The week before is called Holy Week. Special services are held on the Sunday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. The 40-day period up to Easter is called Lent, a period of preparatory fasting and penitence. Only the devout few fast nowadays, but many people attempt to give up some pleasure during the period, such as drinking alcohol. Whitsuntide, seven weeks after Easter, is the Christian equivalent of the Jewish Pentecost. Palm Sunday, before Easter, celebrates the triumphal palm-lined arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem.



Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and the holy month of fasting. During daylight hours, Muslims must refrain from eating or drinking. The purpose of Ramadan is to promote self-discipline both for the individual and the community. Those disabled, ill, infirm, or travelling, do not have to fast. The fast is traditionally broken at sunset with a dish of dates. The first day after Ramadan is Eid-ul-fitr, when a celebratory feast is held and children receive gifts.

The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that must be undertaken by every able-bodied Muslim at least once in their life, takes place from days 8-13 of the twelfth month. Around 2-3 million pilgrims, dressed simply in a white sheet and sandals, gather to retrace the steps of the Prophet. Male pilgrims shave their heads during the trip to symbolise the cutting away of sin.

The four-day festival of Eid-al-Adha is held at the end of the Hajj period. It commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.

Christmas decoration

Hot cross buns at Easter

Dates at sunset in Ramadan

Hajj certificate, 17th century