British religious festivals

Whilst the official study materials include some of the major religious events of the Christian calendar, it does not include all of them. Also, as the UK is a multi-cultural nation, observances from the other major religions are becoming increasingly commonplace. Information about some of these festivals is included below.


All Saint’s Day

All Saint’s Day is celebrated on 1st November and is a day to honour the Saints, known and unknown.

All Soul’s Day

All Souls Day is celebrated on the 2nd November and commemorates the faithful departed who have not yet been purified and reached heaven. It is a predominantly Catholic celebration.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and is 46 days (40 days, not including Sunday) before Easter. This means it is a moveable feast and can fall between 4th February and 10th March.

It is called Ash Wednesday because of the practice of marking a cross of ashes on the forehead as a sign of repentance. The ashes are often made from the palm crosses used from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.


Lent is the period of 46 days (or 40 days, not including Sundays) that lead up to Easter and commemorates the time that Jesus spent in the desert enduring the temptations of Satan.
Traditionally Lent is marked by fasting, abstaining from festivities and a period of penance. It is more common these days, however, to mark this abstinence by giving up a vice or giving time to charitable organisations.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is a moveable feast that falls on the last Sunday before Easter. This means that it can fall between 15th March and 18th April. It marks the day that Jesus returned to Jerusalem before his subsequent trail and crucifixion, as commemorated during Easter.

It is called Palm Sunday as, according to the Gospels, as Jesus rode into the city the people there covered his path with branches and leaves of palm trees.


The Islamic calendar consists of 12 lunar months and is shorter than the Gregorian calendar (the calendar conventionally used in the UK) by 11 or 12 days. As such the dates of their festivals and religious observances fall on different dates in the UK. On New Year’s Day in 2011 it will be the year 1432 by the Islamic calendar.

Muslims refer to years as AH (‘Al-Hijrah’) instead of AD (‘Anno Domine’) from the Gregorian calendar.

Al-Hijrah (Islamic New Year)

The Islamic New Year falls on the first day of the Islamic month of Muharram and marks the date when the Prophet Muhammed moved from Mecca to Medina and set up the first Islamic state.

There are no particular festivities or rituals on this day as the major events in their calendar are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.


Ashura takes place on the tenth day of Muharram and marks the days that Nuh (Noah) left the Ark and that Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah. Shi’a Muslims also commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet.

In Shi’ite communities this is a solemn day, marked by a mourning procession and plays re-enacting the martyrdom. In London, in particular, a procession takes place which ends with speeches at Marble Arch.


This is the ‘Festival of Sacrifice’ which commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God and takes place on the tenth day of the month of Dhul Hajj, in the four days following the Hajj.

Muslims gather on the first day of the celebrations in their finest clothing to perform the Eid prayer. Traditionally a sacrifice of a healthy male animal was performed, with a third of the meat being eaten by the family, a third given to relatives and the last third given away to the poor. Those who are poor, needy, or ill is not expected to sacrifice anything and instead receives gifts from the community.

Some people continue to sacrifice an animal today, although not all Muslims do so. Today the tradition also survives in the form of charitable donations of time and food to try and ensure that no-one goes without during these days.


This one day festival of thanksgiving happens immediately after the end of Ramadhan, the holy month of fasting. ‘Fitr’ means charity and the significance of this festival is that it is an opportunity to reflect on the lessons learned during Ramadhan and encourage the giving of charity to the needy.

Muslims attend the morning prayer and often spend the rest of the time visiting friends and family and cooking traditional foods and sweets. A donation is also expected of Muslim families and the money collected in this way is used only for charitable purposes.

The Hajj

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia. It is a religious duty and it must be fulfilled at least once by every Muslim who is physically able to, and can afford to do so. The pilgrimage takes place on from the eighth to the twelth days of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.

During the Hajj all Muslims wear white unstitched cloth - although women can wear a loose salwar kameez. If possible the same cloth worn on the Hajj should be used as a funeral shroud. All Muslims wear the same clothes to signify equality and so everyone, whatever their status or position, should wear these plain robes.

The Hajj is associated with the life of the Prophet Muhammed, but the pilgirimage itself has it roots many thousands of years before (around 2000BC) during the time of Abraham. There are several rituals that each pilgrim must perform, such as walking seven times counter-clockwise around the Kaaba (a cube-shaped building found in the Masjid al-Haram mosque), running back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drinking from the Zamzam Well, standing a vigil on the plains of Mount Arafat and a ritual known as Stoning the Devil.

Milad un Nabi

This is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammed on the twelth day of Rabi Ul Awwal. This is not a major festival in the same way that Christmas is for Christians, but is highly honoured in Islamic nations. The celebration is normally marked by prayer and contemplation of the the Prophet and his teachings.


Ramadhan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and is the month of fasting. During this month Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual activity between sunrise and sunset. This period of fasting lasts from the start of the month until the sighting of the next full moon. During this month Muslims pray for guidance and purification from past sins and try to purify themselves through exhibiting self-restraint and performing good deeds.

It is worth noting that certain people are exempt from fasting, such as children, the sick and elderly, and pregnant women. Where possible, however, people should fulfill the fast once they are able to - for instance, after they have recovered from sickness or given birth.

Hindu & Sikh

The Hindu & Sikh calendar which is based on a combination of lunar and solar cycles. There is a rather complex system to how the lunar and solar cycles interact and how this affects the calendar. By the Hindu calendar it became the year 5112 on 19th May 2010


Diwali is popularly known as the festival of lights, and is a five day festival which begins late in the Hindu month of Ashwin and finishes in early Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar Ashwin falls between September & October and Kartika falls between October and November.

The festival celebrates victories of good over evil by Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. People decorate their homes with candles and lights during this period, especially using a kind of oil lamp called a diya. It is a time when families gather, and often gifts of sweets such as laddoo and barfi are given.

Durga Puja - Navaratri & Dussher

These autumn festivals cover ten days of ceremonies, fasts, feasts, song and dance in honour of the goddess Durga, who is believed to be the mother of the universe and the supreme power.

The ten days begin with the ‘nine divine nights’ of song, dance and celebration known as Navartri. These nine days are divided into three sets of three days to adore different aspects of the goddess - first as destroyer of impurities and vices, secondly as provider of spiritual wealth and thirdly the source of wisdom.

The tenth day is called Dusshera and marks the defeat and death of the demon king Ravana. Effigies of Ravana are burnt, and firecrackers are a common feature.


This is a spring festival which commemorates the slaying of the demoness Holika by Lord Vishnu’s devotee, Prahlad. Holi is also known as Dhuli Vandana and is celebrated on the last day of the full moon in the month of Phalguna.

Celebrations begin the day before Holi (known as Holika Dahanam, which means ‘Holika’s slaying’), whilst the day itself is celebrated by people throwing coloured powders and water at each other. The festivites end on the fifth day after the full moon, which is known as Rangapanchami.


The Jewish, or Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar and is predominantly used today to determine the dates of religious observances. Much like the Hindu & Sikh calendar, owing to the 11 day difference between the lunar and solar years a fairly complex system is required. By the Hebrew calendar, the year 5771 began on 9th September 2010.


Passover begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and is celebrated for eight days outside of Israel. It commemorates the freeing of the ancient Israelites from slavery. According to the book of Exodus, God sent an avenging angel to inflict ten plagues on the Egyptians to make them release the Israelites - the angel knew to ‘passover’ the homes of the Israelites as they marked the doors of their houses with blood form a sacrificed lamb.

The first two and last two days of Passover are full days of rest and no work is allowed. When the Israelites were released it is said they left in such a rush that they could not wait of their bread to rise. As such, before the festival all traces of leaven (yeast) are removed from the house and are forbidden during the festival. The main event of the festival are ritual ‘seder’ meals eaten on the first two days. There are specific foods to eat, such as unleavened bread, bitter herbs and lamb.

There are special readings to be observed in the synagogue on the rest of the days commemorate the exodus of the Israelites and their escape from the Egyptians.

Rosh Hashanah

This is the Jewish New Year and is observed on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, in September or October. It marks the start of the observances of the days of repentance which conclude with Yom Kippur.

They are days of rest and celebrations are characterised by special prayers and the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. Symbolic foods eaten include apples and honey and a sweet carrot stew called tzimmes.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement for Jews and it is normally observed with a 25 hour period of rest, fasting, prayer and repentance. It takes place on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, in September or October.

The fast lasts from sunset of the night before until sunset on the following day. During this time Jews must abstain from eating and drinking, bathing and ‘marital relations’. There are five prayer services and the evening of Ym Kippur should be a time for private and public confessions of guilt - at the end of Yom Kippur one is considered absolved of their sins by God.


This is the Jewish festival of lights and is an eight day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish people mark the festival by lighting candles in the distinctive nine-branched Menorah, or Hanukkah. One candle is lit every day of the festival, with the last being lit on the final night (the ninth candle is called the shamash and is lit each night for the purpose of lighting the others).

There are a series of rituals observed during Hanukkah including blessings of the candles every night, special prayers during services and extra blessings after meals. There is a custom of eating foods fried or baked in oil including latkes (potatoe pancakes) and doughnuts (pontshkes). Dreidels, the distinctive Jewish spinning tops, are also part of Hanukkah.