Day or period of time set aside to commemorate, ritually celebrate or reenact, or anticipate events or seasons—agricultural, religious, or sociocultural—that give meaning and cohesiveness to an individual and to the religious, political, or socioeconomic community. Because such days or periods generally originated in religious celebrations or ritual commemorations that usually included sacred community meals, they are called feasts or festivals.

The terms feast and festival usually—though not always in modern times—involve eating or drinking or both in connection with a specific kind of rite: passage rites, death rites, sacrificial rites, seasonal observances, commemorative observances, and rites celebrating the ending of fasts or fast periods. Fasting, the opposite of feasting, has often been associated with purification rites or as a preparatory discipline for the celebration of feasts and associated rites. Festivals often include not only feasting but also dramatic dancing and athletic events, as well as revelries and carnivals that at times border on the licentious. Depending upon the central purpose of a feast or festival, the celebration may be solemn or joyful, merry, festive, and ferial.

Another term associated with the events and activities of days of sacred significance is “holy day,” from which is derived the word holiday. This term has come to mean a day or period of special significance not only in religious calendars.

This section, though it will concentrate on feasts and festivals in the history of religions, will also give attention to the holidays of what has been termed the secular (or profane) sphere. Most secular holidays, however, have some relationship—in terms of origin—with religious feasts and festivals. The modern practice of vacations—i.e., periods in which persons are “renewed” or participate in activities of “recreation”—is derived from the ancient Roman religious calendar in a reverse fashion. More than 100 days of the year were feast days dedicated to various Roman gods and goddesses. On the days that were sacred festivals, and thus holy days, persons rested from their routine daily activities. Days that were not considered sacred were called dies vacantes, vacant days, during which people worked. In modern times, however, vacations (derived from the term dies vacantes) are periods of rest, renewal, or recreation that may be sacred or secular holidays—or simply periods of time away from everyday work allowed by modern business or labour practices.