The word “holiday” comes from the Old English hāligdæg (hālig “holy” + dæg “day“), and is rooted in the rituals that punctuate the religious year. Often, as in the case of Christianity and other now-dominant organized religions, these holidays superimposed themselves upon pre-existing rites that marked the changes of the seasons—at the spring and autumn equinox and the summer and winter solstice—and the important stages of the agricultural year such as planting and harvest time. More recently, in the modern era, these holidays have become increasingly secularized, so that adults and children get days, even weeks, off from their workaday routines but are free to spend these holidays as they choose.
In 1960s India, our celebrations of the many and various festivals that enlivened the year were eclectic and largely secular, although of course we were aware that others marked the holidays with religious rituals. The early post-Independence era was one of Nehruvian secularism, in which we celebrated a pan-Indian unity across lines of religion, caste, and ethnicity. For me, the spring festival of Holi (see TMA #103, Holi, Water Play, Rites of Spring) and the New Year’s festival of Diwali (see TMA #231, Festivals of Light) were times of celebration, color, and light, marked by colored dyes and sparkling fireworks. Nowadays they seem to be celebrated more narrowly as Hindu religious holidays. But times change, and the meanings we invest in our holidays change accordingly.
As Springtime springs anew, Easter approaches in a profusion of new growth. I find myself singing Donovan’s sweet Lullaby of Spring and remembering Easters past in different countries and settings, from the joyful celebrations of Orthodox Easter in Greece and in the United States among my Ukrainian in-laws (See TMA #107, Kalo Paska), to Easter at my boarding school in Darjeeling, India, up in the foothills of the Himalayas. As a child at St. Agnes Convent School in India, I participated in maypole dances on May Day, and will never forget the ignominy of my false move that tied up my entire group’s maypole in knots, bringing it to a standstill. A little later in the 1960s, in Marxist West Bengal, May Day was celebrated as International Workers’ Day, a nationwide bank holiday when we stood in solidarity with the labor organizations in India and with the workers of the world. Still later, as an adult, I learned the beautiful May Day Carol (this is a variant), and the history of May Songs. So many meanings superimposed upon meanings, but all affirming new life, fertility, and the triumph of life over death.
But life and death is a cycle, of course, and Easter recognizes that we cannot have one without the other. In the Ukrainian tradition, the Sunday after Orthodox Easter is Cemetery Day, when people visit the graves of their departed ancestors, ask a priest to say a prayer for them, and then break bread together, sitting on the grass among the headstones, re-telling old stories and celebrating their lives.
Hallowe’en, or All Hallows Eve, is a holiday when the spirits of departed souls are said to be abroad and the following All Souls Day, is another holiday when they are honored. At Saint Catherine’s, the British Embassy School in Athens, we sang the lovely hymn For All the Saints every November the first, although I don’t remember us singing hymns or, indeed, participating in any religious rituals at any other time of year. In the United States at Hallowe’en, children dress in fanciful and sometimes ghoulish costumes and visit the neighbors demanding gifts of candy—or else. Nowadays, influenced by the Americans, trick-or-treating is practiced in many other countries as well, although that wasn’t the case in my childhood, when I only knew October 31st as my mother’s birthday.
Next week I hope to be in the U.K. during the Easter holidays for the first time in forty years. I look forward to being reunited with family and old friends and to returning to England in its springtime glory (Oh, to be in Yingland!). Sadness is bound to accompany our memories of those whom we have lost, just as joy will surely arise and bubble over as we celebrate being together. That’s life, and I treasure it all.