It’s a strange thing to describe Eid to people who are unfamiliar with it as I have found myself doing this and past years, as the holiday rolls around. Probably because it is a really diversely celebrated holiday, and might look pretty different as every family has its own yearly traditions. For me, some of the things I would look forward to every Eid are even too silly to be given such a weighty word as ‘tradition’. One of these was escaping the banalities of adult dinner party conversation, with my cousin by absconding to the balcony where we would dangle our legs over the edge and gravely discuss the boy bands of the time, or whatever other pressing matters demanded our attention. The general basis of Eid celebrations in Pakistan is probably the same as most other holidays — to visit with relatives you don’t see much of during the year, to put aside work and spend time with family (whether or not you really want to), to send gifts to neighbors, give charity to the less fortunate, and partake of a variety of rich foods reserved especially for Eid entertaining.
A bit of background: Eid is considered the most important Islamic holiday. It’s celebrated to mark the end of Ramadaan, the lunar month of fasting in which the first verse of the Quran is said to have been revealed. In many countries where Eid is a national holiday, there are 3 days of holidays. There are two Eids — Eid-ul-Fitr is the eid described here, the other being Eid-ul-Azha which is called the greater eid. It seems odd to me that Eid-ul-Fitr is called the lesser eid, since I have always observed it to be anticipated with more excitement and celebrated with greater force than Eid-ul-Azha. I guess a fitting analogy would be the way Christmas is a bigger celebration than Easter. Like Eid-ul-Fitr, Christmas involves more planning, presents, food and entertaining than Easter does (to my knowledge at least — there may be some die-hard Easter planners out there and I wouldn’t want to offend them).
The end of Ramadaan also means the end of fasting — this may also contribute to why Eid-ul-Fitr seems like a more joyous occasion. Whatever the reason, for Eid-ul-Fitr my mother would prepare a much more elaborate spread, and we would receive many more visitors and gifts from relatives, friends and neighbours. For Eid-ul-Fitr we also received more Eidi — envelopes of money that younger people receive from their elders as a gift. It was always fun to collect all the envelopes containing mysterious amounts and then count one’s loot at the end of the day. I remember there were a few years where I felt very fortunate that I suddenly had more pocket money than I knew what to do with.
Eid moon. Spotting the new moon at the end of Ramadaan means that Eid-ul-Fitr is the next day. Photo by Imran Dawood.
In the last few days of Ramadaan, people watch the sky for signs of the sliver of the new moon. Though the date of the new moon is predicted, there’s always room for a day (sometimes two) of error as lunar months vary in length. When the new moon is sighted, word spreads quickly and mosques everywhere blow a celebratory horn to announce “tomorrow is Eid”! The new moon is only in the sky for 5-10 minutes, which makes actually sighting it feel rather special. The image of the new moon is the symbol for Eid, as it heralds the beginning of the new lunar month, which must explain why the crescent is such a prominent image on Eid cards around the world.
As soon as it’s confirmed that Eid is the next day, the celebrations begin. The night of the new moon is called Chaand Raat (literally, ‘moon night’). On chaand raat stores stay open late into the night as people throng the markets looking for henna, bangles, flowers, new clothes, sweets and ittar (perfume), as they prepare for three days full of visits from family and friends. Sweet shops are overflowing with customers getting boxes of treats wrapped up in shiny paper. The streets are filled with bright lights, crowds, makeshift hawkers, henna stands and general merriment. Preparations for Eid are usually happening at least a week in advance, as everyone knows that there’s a lot of visiting and entertaining to be done within 3 days, during which no shops will be open for business. As soon the horns announcing Eid are heard people rush to buy sweets and savouries to celebrate the news, wish their friends eid mubarak and send boxes of goodies to friends, neighbours and families in need.
It’s been a fair number of years that I was part of a a traditional eid celebration and I have to admit I do miss some of it. Although just like any holiday where it felt obligatory to do the rounds with one’s family, I did feel irritated sometimes by how all-consuming the eid routine felt when I just wanted to stay home and read a book instead of embarking on a day-long visiting marathon with relatives near and far. However now that I look back on it there was something comforting in the non-negotiable stability of Eid visits. On the first day of Eid, the same sequence of visitors would come wandering into our house all throughout the day. On the second day, my family and I would make our visits – the challenging part of this was accepting enough sherbet and snacks at each stop so as to not offend our hosts, and also allowing enough room for the next group of warm relatives to ply us with refreshments. (What a predicament, I know. Goodness knows how I made it out alive.) The third day of eid was kind of a wild card: no set routine, meeting relatives that got left out, catching up on housework from all the guests that had been by those days, and recovering from the food coma. Now that I’m looking back on it, there is a lot I didn’t fully appreciate about Eid: the neighborliness, almost overwhelming hospitality of extended family members, and time spent building relationships with cousins, are all things I can appreciate now.
Before my sudden craving for cham cham becomes dangerous (pink sweets pictured above), I’ll end my Eid reminiscing for now. I wonder how Eid looks and feels in other parts of the world than Pakistan. Thoughts or stories anyone?