Ancient peoples were much more dependent on the seasons than we are. Most premodern peoples lived agrarian lives, ultimately and intimately dependent on the shifting seasons for water, crops and pasture. Harvests were a time of plenty and celebration, while winter could bring near famine. Ancient peoples closely watched the heavens — while inventing astronomy — in order to properly create a sacred calendar so that they could predict the regular seasonal changes in the agrarian cycle.
Ancient priests were veteran watchers of the sun, moon and stars, and from the patterns they discerned in the movements of the heavenly bodies they measured “signs and seasons, days and years” (Genesis 1:14), thereby devising a calendar. Ancient calendars organized all aspects of society, religious and agricultural, and were closely linked with the patterns of the movement of the sun as manifest in the solstices and equinoxes.
The alignments of the great stone circle at Stonehenge in England are thought to have been designed in part to measure the solstices and serve as a site of annual pilgrimage and year rites. The entrance tunnel to the great tomb of Newgrange in Ireland is so aligned that the light of the sun hits the inner chamber through a “window” at sunrise on the winter solstice, enlightening the tomb chamber.
The biblical Israelites had such a sacred astronomical calendar that governed all sacred activities at the temple. Different sacrifices and offerings were made at the temple on a daily, weekly and monthly basis (1 Chronicles 23:30-31).
In addition, there were three annual pilgrimages in which all Israelite men were required to present themselves at the temple for the reading of the law, prophetic instructions, rituals of salvation and temple worship. These were Passover, Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Booths) (Exodus 23:14-17; Exodus 34:18-23; Deuteronomy 16), and they are still celebrated today in a modified form by Jews.
Passover occurred near the spring equinox, while Sukkot/Day of Atonement occurred shortly after the autumn equinox. The importance of such annual pilgrimage festivals among the Jews is reflected by the fact that Jesus regularly visited Jerusalem and taught at the temple during these holy days. He did so in part to reach the large crowds of Jewish pilgrims that would be there.
The ancient Persians likewise celebrated Nowruz (“New Year”) at their capital at Persepolis near the spring equinox — a festival still celebrated in Iran today. Our modern Olympic Games are based on the quadrennial year rites of the Greeks — when all Greeks would gather at the great temple of Zeus at Olympia. The fundamental purpose of the Olympics was the universal worship of Zeus; the sporting events that we remember today were, in fact, simply one form of communal worship, which included processions, prayers, hymns, drama and sacrifice.
Such patterns of annual pilgrimage and gathering to holy places continued throughout the world during the Middle Ages. Christians undertook Easter pilgrimages to Jerusalem; Muslims have an annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca that attracts millions of worshippers each year. Hindus celebrate pilgrimage festivals such as the Char Dam or Kumbh Mela. The Mongols have celebrated the Hawarinbayaru (“Spring Festival”) for thousands of years, with all the tribesmen gathering when the new spring grass can sustain huge herds in one location.
The amazing archaeological site of Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico is understood by many scholars to have been a sacred pilgrimage center for the Anasazis. The Maya fascination with the calendar likewise reflects their traditions of annual pilgrimage to their great temple cities, which still attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. The famous Calendar Stone likewise marked the sacred year rites of the Aztecs.
Mormons too have developed a sacred calendar of sorts, adding unique LDS commemorations to the main Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. One of the most important of these is the semiannual LDS general conference — ideally the gathering of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and orginating from Salt Lake City. Conference days are very close to the fall and spring equinoxes (around Sept. 22 and March 20).
Although most generally participate through technology now, rather than physical pilgrimage, this Latter-day Saint gathering to hear the reading of the law, receive blessings from the high priest and learn prophecies for the coming year is in some ways the spiritual continuation of the ancient Israelite year-rites of Passover and the Day of Atonement.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” Their views are their own.