How the Celestially Auspicious Occasions of the Past Are the Holidays of Today

12/04/2010 01:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Throughout human existence, people have plotted the passing of time. The ability to correctly track the annual return of the cycles of nature meant being able to effectively plan and prepare for the future. Knowing with some certainty when the birds and herds migrated and when they could be expected back, when the fruits ripened and the grasses grew, when the nuts were ready for gathering, when the river rose and flooded, when the rains came, when it was likely to get cold again, stacked the odds toward survival.

From the earliest ice ages there are examples of crude calendrical reckonings, bone and stone renderings of the regularly recurring astronomical cycles: the phases of the moon, the ascendance and changing position of certain stars and constellations, as well as the daily and annual disappearance and reappearance of the sun. Incised, chipped, carved and painted, these symbols attest to the astute observation skills of our ancestors.

The special days that announce the advance and retreat of the sun, moon and stars were not merely noted; they were celebrated, marked by ceremony as well as graven in stone. The recurrence of these celestially auspicious occasions served as significant milestones with which people were able to measure the cycle of the seasons and the seasons of their lives. Ultimately, people kept track of time in order to live in tune with it.

Living in attunement with the workings of the world means to consciously interact with it. To enjoy a visceral, sensual and spiritual engagement with it. To assume an active awareness of personal response-ability. For people who live in intimate association with the elements, who indeed identify themselves as integral partners with the forces of nature, celebration is a friendly act of faith.

The continuous circling of the heavenly bodies is not taken for granted. Each dawn and each dusk, each rising and setting of the moon and stars, each cycle of the sun, the approach of each season, is met with reverence and awe. The planets are actively encouraged in their rounds by the practice of supplication, sacrifice, prayer, promise and thanksgiving. This ritual participation in the cosmic process both affirms and assures the continuation of the cyclical order of time.

Though few people in our crowded cacophonous urban world live in such focused alignment with the earth, the holidays we celebrate are the living legacy of these oldest seasonal observances. In some cases, the days are still holy, the original intentions and primal power of the occasion still manifest. In most cases, however, the shell of the celebration has been maintained, while its soul has been modernized, sanitized, secularized and commercialized beyond recognition, its function forgotten.

It is the indigenous peoples of the world who, clinging tenaciously to the sanity and wisdom that they have inherited, persist in their perception of a passionate and participatory universe, a universe in which everything is interconnected. When Pueblo Indians run up the mountain at dawn on the Summer Solstice, they are not just greeting the sun. They are, by their very participation, helping the sun to rise, doing their small but crucial part.

This sanctified collaboration with the cosmos creates a consciousness of a sacred reality, which endures in many tribal communities throughout the world even today. Years ago, during the course of my calendrical and celebratory research, I came to speak with Doris Leedercharge at the Lakota Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. I told her that I was eager to learn about as many Native American holy days as possible, and she replied, "According to our religion, every day is holy!"

It is this transcendent recognition of the sacred, this expansion of vision, which allows the inherent, hidden divinity in all things to become apparent. As a culture, alas, we have lost the ability, the facility, the talent for such crystal insight. It is our challenge as hectic, driven people to charge our common dailiness with that same consummate clarity. Our reward is to see the ordinary as special and the special as extraordinary.

For 35 years, I have been gathering information about the celestially auspicious occasions of many cultures and traditions -- a collection that fills 10 filing cabinets. As numerous as they are, these holidays represent but a small sampling of the richly diverse smorgasbord of ceremony celebrated around the globe. Their number is sufficient, however, to remind me that every day, somewhere, someone is celebrating something. That every day is most certainly holy.

While it is this very diversity that makes our world such an endlessly interesting and deliciously exciting place, it is the underlining similarities, the strange and wonderful convergences of cross-cultural ritual practice, that point to the sameness of the human condition the world over. By celebrating these celestially auspicious occasions we commit ourselves to that universal connection; we follow our own roots back to their common source, that eternal spirit which links us all at our primal center.