All over the world, Muslims participate in a yearly fast during the holy month of Ramadan, refraining from food and drink between dawn and sunset. The month is of spiritual importance, allowing individuals to cleanse their souls through worship, simplicity, and abstinence from easily avoidable sins in daily life. It is an important time in which people are given a chance to strengthen their faith, and it is a reminder of the everyday luxuries (especially food) which many do not have.
The end of the holy month is marked by a grand celebration called Eid al-Fitr, a three day holiday on the first day of Shawaal (the month following Ramadan on the Islamic lunar-based calendar). The holiday includes family gatherings, food, gift-giving, and it's an overall joyous time for everyone.
This year, Eid celebrations began on Friday, July 17 or Saturday, July 18, depending on whether the crescent new moon was sighted the night before. Muslims in some countries, including the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom, declared in advance they would observe the holiday on Friday.
The traditions of this holiday vary slightly by country and culture. In Islam it is forbidden to fast on Eid, so everyone gathers to celebrate and enjoy the end of Ramadan together. Many people decorate their homes and dress in new clothing customary to their background. The day begins with early morning prayers; communities congregate, then head to large family and friend-oriented feasts. Children receive gifts, and greetings are exchanged in person and over the phone to wish "Eid Mubarak" or "Happy Eid". It is also a day in which people give money and food towards charities and the less fortunate.
In many Middle Eastern countries, Eid al-Fitr is a three-day holiday observed by governments; however in some countries, such as the United States, it is not yet recognized as a federally approved holiday. Nonetheless, Muslims are able to take one day off in the holiday's name, and children are excused from school.
If you are non-Muslim and see a group of Muslims ordering big meals at your local McDonald's, just remember they've been waiting for this day all month. To my fellow Muslims and non-Muslims, Eid Mubarak!