Which religion has the most holidays?

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April 6 2012 3:22 PM

Which Religion Has the Most Holidays?

A spiritual head-to-head.

Pope Benedict XVI.
Does the Catholic religion boast the most holidays?

Photograph by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images.

Friday is a big day in two of the world’s major religions. Christians celebrate Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, while Jews begin Passover, the holiday marking their ancestors’ escape from ancient Egypt. Which of the world's major religions has the most festivals and holidays throughout the year?

Hinduism and Catholicism. If you don’t take the spiritual or practical significance of holidays into account, Hindus and Roman Catholics are tied for the most, because pretty much every day of the year has some special significance in the religious calendar of each. Roman Catholics have sainted more than 10,000 people, and every day of the year is the feast day of a handful. Hindus recognize hundreds of deities, and most have celebrations for birthdays and significant milestones. There are also Hindu holidays celebrating the changing of the seasons, the harvest, lunar phases, and other notable natural events.

A more practical assessment of holidays would be limited to festivals that either require active observance or at least entail a day of rest. Hindus seem to triumph by this standard as well. In India, where the overwhelming majority of Hindus live, government offices close nationwide for six Hindu holidays, including Holi, Diwali, and Dussehra—all of which commemorate the victory of gods over demons. India recognizes 27 additional “restricted” Hindu holidays. Employees are entitled to take off a limited number of these days in accordance with their personal religious beliefs. That makes for at least 33 recognized Hindu holidays. (Major holidays in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism are also vacation days in India, sometimes creating an over-clogged holiday calendar. The Finance Ministry asked banks to open for a full day this Saturday to make up for the two religious holidays observed this week.)

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The Roman Catholic Church requires the faithful to attend mass every Sunday, but that can hardly be considered a holiday. (Same goes for the Jewish Shabbat.) In addition, the church mandates attendance on the 10 universal holy days of obligation. (Catholics in some countries have additional obligations, like St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland.) You’d have to add Easter to that list, and perhaps the major movable feast days of Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and the beginning of Advent. That’s still fewer than 20 total, and Catholics really don’t have any significant obligations on other feast days. (Try telling your boss you need Shrove Monday off.) Protestants trail far behind Catholics, because they recognize only a subset of the Catholic holidays and typically don’t add on their own special days. Many Mormons celebrate their church’s founding on April 6 and Pioneer Day on July 24, although the recognition of the Mormons' entry into Utah wouldn't classify as a purely religious celebration.

Judaism recognizes five major holidays that keep the observant home from work: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. There are also two minor holidays, Purim and Hanukkah, on which labor is permitted. Some of these are multiday celebrations, but it still leaves them a fair distance behind Hindus and Roman Catholics. Muslims are also low on holiday fare. The two main festivals are the last day of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha, which ends the Hajj. There is also a small number of holidays celebrated only in certain regions or by particular sects. Some Muslims observe the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, while others think the practice idolatrous. Many Shiites celebrate the birthday of the caliph Ali, and all of them commemorate his martyrdom of his son Hussein on Ashura.*

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Explainer thanks Dan Rabinowitz of the Seforim blog.

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Correction, April 7, 2012: This original incorrectly stated that Ashura commemorates martyrdom of Ali. In fact, it commemorates the martyrdom of his son, Hussein. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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