Ramadan spans the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. In 2021, Ramadan started April 13 in Saudi and ended May 13. The dates change each year because Islam’s lunar calendar follows the phases of the moon — this means the festivities around the world can vary by 24 hours, depending on when the new crescent moon is visible.
Ramadan celebrates the Prophet Muhammad receiving the Quran. Throughout the month, Muslims practice many of the five pillars of Islam, including salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving) and sawm (fasting). If they are physically able, Muslims are required to refrain from eating and drinking (including water) during daylight hours, focusing instead on worship and charitable acts. But while it is an intense period of reflection, it is also one filled with joyous traditions that include food, family and festivities.
Muslims traditionally break their fasts just as the Prophet Muhammad did 1,400 years ago, with some dates and a sip of water at sunset. After sunset prayers, family and friends share a large feast known as iftar. “In many families, iftar is both a social event and gastronomical adventure,” says Felicia Campbell, a cookbook author specializing in Saudi food. “Sweets are a big, big thing during Ramadan,” agrees Firas Al Rkhayes, an Arabic language teacher. “Vimto [a sweet carbonated beverage] always comes out during the holy month,” he adds. “To break our fast, we usually eat sambosas — stuffed triangle-shaped dough — and also balls of fried dough covered in date syrup called gaimat,” says Tasneem Alsultan, an Arabian photographer.
Another tradition involving sweets that falls during Ramadan is Gargee’an, which usually takes place on the 13th, 14th or 15th night. Sometimes compared to Halloween, Gargee’an is marked by “children dressing up in traditional attire, going door to door, singing traditional songs and getting sweets from their neighbors,” explains Al Rkhayes.
A Saudi man gives gifts to children as they celebrate Gargee’an during the holy month of Ramadan.
The end of Ramadan is characterized by the most intense worship as Muslims seek to have their prayers answered during Laylat Al Qadr, or the “Night of Power (or Destiny),” which usually falls on the 27th day. It is on this day that Muslims believe God sent the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad and revealed the first verses of the Quran. “A lot of Saudis stop listening to music during Ramadan and try to read the whole Quran in a month,” says Ahmed Al Hanboli, a native of Jeddah.
The morning after Ramadan ends, Muslims attend prayers, then “you visit all your friends and family, congratulating them for fasting for the month — and there’s a big feast,” says Al Rkhayes. At the feast, children often receive new clothes, gifts and money, meant as encouragement for observing Ramadan. “We hand out small amounts of cash to the children in the family, and a little more to the teens in the family. I received cash gifts until I earned my first salary,” says Alsultan.
“Eid signifies happiness in every way: We eat and drink and wear new clothes and meet our family — and we pray that God accepts our deeds,” says Saad Al Dawood, a hospitality student in Riyadh. “As for my family traditions during Eid Al Fitr, we usually celebrate in our hometown, Huraymila, exchanging gifts and playing family games.”
Friends and family get together to pray — and feast — for Eid Al Fitr.
Curious to discover more Saudi traditions? Click here to read about the country’s most celebrated holidays.