Spring arrives in the northern hemisphere on March 21, on the vernal equinox. Celebrations welcoming spring are as diverse and varied as the world we live in.
Eggs universally symbolize spring and fertility. In 17th century France, colored eggs were presented to brides to promote fertility. German farm-workers received eggs to ensure bumper crops. Russians bury decorated eggs with the deceased to ensure rebirth.
In the Norwegians game of “Egg Knocking,” partners tap each other’s eggs, until all are broken and just one winner remains with the egg intact. Bulgarians pelt eggs at each other. The last “man” standing with an unbroken egg is the winner!
Often, the advent of spring is linked to rituals involving animals. North Americans depend on the groundhog to forecast spring. Elsewhere, people wait for badgers or bears to perform the same function.
In the Ardennes winter is personified as a bad-tempered, shaggy bear, which must be driven away to make way for spring. A masked and fur-coated figure is chased by villagers waving sticks until the bear falls down and “plays dead, with its pursuers shouting, “Winter is dead. Spring is coming!”
As the harbinger of new growth and life, many spring rituals around the world are related to trees.
In India, trees are planted during the Kalpa Vruksha festival. . Young trees, believed to have magical wish-granting powers are decorated with fruits and flowers. Children gather underneath to see if wishes made during the winter will come true, while enjoying gifts.
Ch’ing Ming, welcomes the spring in China. For three days prior, people eat only cold food to avoid burning wood. Families have outdoor picnics. On the day people feast and plant new trees.
During the Israeli Hamishah Osar Bish’vat, children plant trees bought with donations of money. They sing to the new trees and enjoy local fresh fruit.
In eastern United States and Canada, maple trees are the harbingers of spring. The sap rises and is tapped to make maple syrup and sugar. People go to the “sugar bush” and have “sugaring-off” parties.
Indians have an especially exuberant and vibrant expression of “spring fever.” A colorful kaleidoscope of red, yellow, green, purple, and blue colors arc and float through the air during the Holi festival. This 2-day spring celebration begins with a bonfire the previous evening, in which demons and evil spirits are ritualistically consigned to the flames. Next day, people throw dry colored powders and spray dyed water until everyone resembles an animated rainbow!
Thailand throws perfumed water during the spring festival of Songkran, on new moon in April. The 3-day festival includes parades down flower-filled streets, with music and dancing, led by the Queen of the Water Festival.
Buddha statues are washed and paraded through the streets; crowds throw water on them. The water-fight begins in earnest with people dousing each other with buckets and super-soakers on the street.
In Hungary and Czechoslovakia Easter Monday signals boys to spray perfume and water at girls; in turn they are invited in for treats. The next day, it is the girls’ turn.
In Japan, people throw beans during the festival of Setsubun, which occurs on February 3, the day before spring. They believe the beans drive out the bad spirits of winter, chanting “Out with the demons!” and “Come in good spirits!”
The 7-day Shumbun-no-hi (Vernal Equinox Day), which begins on March 21, consists of Buddhist memorial services, family reunions, and visits to loved ones’ gravesites.
Croatian villagers welcome Green George in April. Young people sing their way from house to home, one dressed as Green George, decked out in green leaves and branches. The songs predict the arrival of spring. They wish each family a prosperous year, receive presents in exchange for some of George’s branches.
In Mittenwald, Germany, winter is chased away on Crazy Thursday in February. Costumed and masked, citizens growl and cavort in the streets, driving out winter demons. Then wearing “handsome” masks and bells, they dance through again symbolizing spring and good weather.
In contrast to paganism, religious observances such as the Semana Santa en Sevilla. During Holy Week before Easter sees churches organizing processions in Seville, featuring floats depicting of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Many rituals are based on the ritualistic significance of fire.
The eve of May Day is called Walpurgis Night in Sweden and Germany. It is a night of bonfires. They both welcome spring and drive out witches and evil spirits, clean the earth and prepare it for spring planting.
The ancient Scottish festival of Beltane resembles Walpurgis Night. People ran through the fields, carrying torches, rolled wheels of blazing straw down hills. They believed that the fire would keep the cattle healthy. Then, people leaped over the flames for good luck.
Mexicans burn a firecracker-filled effigy of Judas. The “Tradition of Mary’s Tears” is sees young couples knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking, “Is the Virgin of Grief weeping here?” If the reply is “yes,” the couple enters and shares a glass of water (representing tears), before an altar featuring Mary, candles, and pine branches.
Las Fallas translates as ‘the fires’ and is a cross between Guy Fawkes’ Night and a citywide carnival. Paella contests, bullfights, parades and ninots – satirical plaster and cardboard statues, which are exploded and burnt on the last night, feature prominently.
In Iran, the first day of spring is also Nowruz, the New Year. On the last
Wednesday of the old year, each family lights a bonfire, and each person jumps over
the fire, in joy and for good luck. Modern Iranians celebrate New Year for 13 days. They visit elders, relatives and friends where gifts are exchanged and sweets and feasts are consumed. On the 13th day people visit parks or rural areas to commune with nature. A special table is set with seven specific items called Haft Sin.
In Egypt, the festival of Isis occurs during the spring equinox with the rising of the Nile. The tale of Isis and her love Osiris is a story of darkness, resurrection, and rebirth.
In Europe, early pagans and Germanic tribes celebrated spring by worshipping the goddess Ostara, believed to be the origin of the word Easter. In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day celebrations are closely linked to the pagan celebrations of Ostara.
The ancient Buddhist holiday of Higan, meaning the “other shore,” lasts for a week in Japan during the equinox. This Festival of Imperial Ancestors pays tribute to the spirits of the dead; their graves are cleaned and decorated, prayers are recited, and offerings made, while spring is welcomed.
The Jewish festival of Purim commemorates the escape of the Jews from ancient Persian, from Haman's plot to exterminate them. Celebrated on the 14th of Adar, people recite the Book of Esther; exchange gifts of traditional food and drink; give charity to the poor and enjoy a celebratory meal. Other customs include drinking wine, wearing of masks and costumes, and public celebration.
The 8-day Passover holiday commemorates the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. Freed by the Egyptian Pharaoh they fled in such haste, they could not wait for bread to rise. Thus, during Passover, no leavened bread is eaten. Matza, the unleavened, flat crispy bread is the primary symbol of the holiday. The start of the holiday, on 10th of Nisan, is celebrated with a large Passover meal and reading of the Hagadah, called the Passover Seder.
Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion. For Catholics, Easter marks the end of the Lenten period of prayer and penitence beginning on Ash Wednesday. The Easter bunny has become a modern symbol for the holiday and many celebrate with an Easter egg hunt.
Spring celebrations date back through millennia to ancient and pagan rituals. These marked the vernal Equinox, the change of seasons, and longer days –renewal, rebirth and fertility. Cultures around the world continue to celebrate spring with festivals and traditions still reflecting ancient rites and customs.