The word “holiday” is derived from the words “holy day,” so it is no surprise that many of the holidays that we celebrate, whether religious or secular, originated as religious holidays. Many holidays are celebrated in both a religious and a secular way: Christmas, for some, is a celebration of the birth of Christ and redemption for mankind; for others it is a celebration of the arrival of Santa Claus with a sackful of toys. Easter is celebrated both as the resurrection of the Christian Savior and as the arrival of spring as heralded by the Easter Bunny with his baskets of jelly beans and chocolate eggs.
But as well as the joyful holidays, we have both religious and secular holidays which are more solemn and commemorative than they are joyful. Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Martin Luther King Day are secular holidays which are observed by solemnity and reflection rather than “celebration.” Nearly every major religion has holidays which are marked by mourning and repentance rather than by joy. Christians “celebrate” Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Jesus was betrayed and crucified. Jews “celebrate” Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a time of fasting, prayer, and confession. Muslims “celebrate” Ramadan, a month of fasting, charity, and self-sacrifice. Buddhists “celebrate” Ulambana, or Ancestor Day, when they make food offerings to relieve the suffering of departed ancestors. Hindus “celebrate” Mahashivaratri, a festival of Shiva spent in fasting and meditation.
One of the most mournful holiday seasons in the Christian calendar is the season of Lent, which comprises the 40 days (plus 6 Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter, including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We celebrate, and yet we mourn. Celebration is not always joyous. It can be filled instead with self-reflection, self-sacrifice, good works, and charity toward others. This type of celebration encompasses both looking inward and examining oneself, but also reaching outward and helping one’s fellow man. This type of holiday is a time that we “observe,” rather than “celebrate.” We observe ourselves, and we observe those around us.
Even if you don’t celebrate Lent, take a moment to “celebrate” anyway. Observe. Honor. Look. Within and without.