The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia might only celebrate three public holidays each year, but these three occasions — National Day, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha — are always marked in style.
While National Day has a fixed annual date according to the solar, Gregorian calendar, the other two fall on different dates each year because they follow the Hijri, the Islamic lunar calendar. The Hijri calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar by about 11 days, and as such, the start of the holy month of Ramadan and the two Eid celebrations shift every year. For Eid Al Fitr to fall on the same date as it did before takes about 33 years.
Sept. 23 marks Saudi Arabia’s National Day, celebrating the unification of Najd and Hijaz. In 1932, the merged nations became the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after the family of King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, of the House of Saud.
Al Yom Al Watany, as Saudi National Day is known in Arabic, is celebrated on a fixed date on the solar calendar. But the years for the holiday are counted according to the lunar calendar, so 2020 marks the 90th anniversary of the nation (instead of the 88th, as it would be if counted by the solar calendar).
The occasion is marked with fireworks, parades packed with floats showcasing the highlights of each region, music and traditional outfits, and Saudi flags lining the streets. Special cultural events are held, and national pride is palpable everywhere, from people decorating their cars and homes to buildings lit up in green for the day.
“National Day in Saudi Arabia has become hugely nationalistic over the past several years. Everyone dresses in green and white (the colors of the Saudi Arabian flag),” says Kristine MacMillan, a registered nurse who lived in Riyadh for six years.
Visiting on National Day is a treat as joy and festivities radiate across Saudi Arabia. To take part in some of these events, pack something green to wear and then head to Riyadh for the largest celebrations. “In the city of Riyadh, the night is celebrated with fireworks scattering the skies at several locations around the city,” MacMillan says. “It’s very festive.”
In Jeddah, discover a different but equally fun atmosphere filled with events and stands lining the coastal Corniche. In addition to parades, there are incredible sales for those who love to shop. To sum it up in the words of one former expat: “National Day is a day when Saudis celebrate their past and anticipate their future.”
The ninth month of the Hijri is the holy month of Ramadan, which concludes with a big three-day celebration to break the fast for another year. While iftar, breaking the fast, is celebrated every day after sunset throughout Ramadan, this is the end of Ramadan, and the end of the holy month’s intermittent fasting. This festive occasion is called Eid Al Fitr.
After a month of fasting and reflection, this Eid celebration is about sharing what you have with others, including giving Zakat Al Fitr, a special payment to charity. The organization Islamic Relief explains: “The minimum amount due is the equivalent of about two kilograms of wheat flour, rice or other staple foodstuff, per member of the household, including dependents, even if they do not live in the same house. Approximately £5/US$7 per head is a safe estimated amount.”
After special Eid prayers, family and friends tend to gather with the children, who are given Eidia gifts, which can include money, new clothes and toys. Then everybody enjoys a traditional feast of delicacies, such as mugalgal, spiced chopped lamb prepared with tomatoes; jareesh, ground wheat mixed with meat and spices; and many sweet treats. In fact, Eid Al Fitr frequently goes by the nickname Sweet Eid because of the many traditional honey- and date-infused cookies and dishes associated with the holiday.
On the first evening of Eid Al Fitr, people go out in their finest clothes — often new clothes purchased for the holiday — to see fireworks and wish each other “Eid Mubarak,” which means Happy Eid. It is not unusual to see women’s hands and feet decorated in henna during this celebration.
Visitors should be advised that despite this initial flurry of activity, the majority of shops and venues will be closed for three days, as people gather in their homes and stay within their family circles.
Eid Al Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, takes place on the 10th day of the final month of the Islamic calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah, and falls roughly two months after Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah. This second Eid commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his firstborn son, Ismail, on the command of God. Before Ismail was sacrificed, God provided a lamb to be used in his place. Today, many Saudi families still sacrifice a sheep — or a goat, cow or even a camel. The meat is divided into three parts and then shared among family, friends and neighbors and people less fortunate.
With most businesses and a few shops closed for three days, this is a quiet time to visit. On the other hand, this is a fascinating chance to go out into the smaller villages and watch the celebration of this ancient tradition.