Religious festivals guide

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The Hindu and Sikh festival of Holi is celebrated in late February or early March, and marks the ending of winter and the beginning of spring. Traditionally, the festival begins with a bonfire to celebrate the death of Holika, the demon of winter. On the second day, revellers throw coloured powder and water over each other until everyone is stained and dyed with bright colours to usher in the new season.

The Pagan celebration of Ostara, the spring equinox, takes place on the 21st March: one of the two days of the year when there are equal parts of daylight and night. This celebration marks the beginning of spring, and is often celebrated by Pagans and Wiccans. The goddess Eostar was the patron of spring, and the title of the holiday is a version of her name. Traditionally, an altar in the home is decorated with the bright colours and symbols of spring, and an egg, representing fertility, is decorated. An Old German custom was to set alight a wooden wheel, a ‘sun-wheel’, and roll it down a hill to symbolize the warmth and energy of the sun.

The three month Buddhist retreat known as Vassa or Rains Retreat is an opportunity for penitence, self-examination and forgiveness. The festival normally begins in July, the rainy season, and lasts for three lunar cycles. During this time, Bhikkhus, Buddhist monks, generally stay inside the walls of their monastery and devote their energy to meditation and reflection.

St Swithin’s Day falls on 15 July each year, and is said to be the day where people must watch the weather to predict its outcome for the next forty days. An Elizabethan rhyme about the day goes as follows: ‘St. Swithin’s day if thou dost rain/ For forty days it will remain/ St. Swithin’s day if thou be fair/For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.’ Apple growers traditionally ask St Swithin for a blessing on this day each year for a strong apple harvest, as the apple symbol is strongly associated with St Swithin.

The Hindu, Sikh and Muslim festival of Raksha Bandhan takes place on 13th August this year, and is a celebration for brothers and sisters to show their love for each other. Traditionally, the sister ties a rakhi, a holy thread, on the wrist of her brother, and in return, the brother offers a gift to his sister; the pair then feed each other sweets.

St Nicholas Day, on December 6th, is often celebrated in by children in various European countries to remember the saint and his reputation for giving aid and bringing kindness. Among his various philanthropic acts, St Nicholas is said to have saved three girls from prostitution by secretly providing them with dowries, raised three murdered sons from the dead, and rescued sailors stranded at sea. For this reason, he is the patron saint of children. On the eve of the day, particularly in Germany, children place their shoes outside their bedroom doors, for them to be filled with sweets over night.

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