This year, the Vernal Equinox happens on 20 March at 11:33am. This is, I think, the most nebulous of the solar festivals. Yes, it does mark an actual solar event, but it’s not the one we typically hear about. It’s not much of an event at all. This festival is less about the event than the time of year. For temperate climates, the vernal equinox is the beginning of the light half of the year, the half of the year when there is more daylight than night-dark in each turning of the days. More daylight means more warming. More warming means activity. Green things start to sprout, turning light into food. Hibernating animals start to stir. Migrating birds and insects are returning and those who remain local the year round are already busy with laying eggs. It is the season of renewal, but not a day of renewal… and in many places renewal may or may not happen around the actual time of equinox.
There are various traditions for the start of spring (or more precisely the end of winter), but in Europe the start of the renewal season has, for centuries, coincided with the Christian festival of Lent. Ronald Hutton tells us that, though it is decidedly the product of the Christian calendar, Lent has always meant ‘spring’ to the people who observed it. He says:
From its earliest recorded occurrence, in Anglo-Saxon texts dated to the beginning of the 11th century, the word ‘lenten’ had the dual meaning of the season of spring and the major annual Christian fast. It [the word, ‘lent’] seems to derive simply from the ‘lengthening’ of the daylight. The connotations of joy, and of abstinence, were intimately combined in it from the beginning, and this dual aspect was retained as it evolved into ‘Lent’ in the 13th century. Not until the 17th century did the term become confined to the fast. It was wholly appropriate to a season at which flowers, foliage, warmth, and light were all increasing and yet food and fuel would also be at their shortest.
It’s curious that the Church retained this very secular name for the weeks leading up to Easter. However, it is even more curious that Germanic-speaking Christian peoples used that name — Easter — for the holy day itself. This word has nothing to do with Christianity, though what it does mean is somewhat vague. In about 725AD, the chronicling monk, the Venerable Bede, tried to explain the conundrum by tying it to words related to ‘the dawn’ (from which we also get the word for the direction of the sunrise, ‘east’). Bede went so far as to claim that there was a goddess that took her name from the dawn and gave that name to the month of April (Eosturmonath in the Saxon language), the time of spring’s renewal. So Bede made Eostre a goddess of spring and then sort of claimed that the Christian festival was named after her time of year. (I do wonder how he kept his head… but then, heresy suppression wasn’t very organized in his day.)
However, not much was made of Bede’s invented goddess — much less his audacious assertion — until recently when the Victorians took Bede’s calendrical note and ran with it, adding many interesting details. For example, it may be that the Grimms, those collectors and sometimes fabricators of folklore, made up the Easter bunny. Well, not entirely… there has been an association between spring and the hare in Germanic cultures for millennia — for obvious reasons. The hare is very active in the spring and is also a particularly fecund mammal, a perfect fertility symbol. He is also a symbol of good luck, again for obvious reasons. But he was never associated with a goddess — or any supernatural being, perhaps excepting a loose relationship with the moon — until Jacob Grimm said that the hare was ‘possibly the totem of Ostara’ (Grimm’s name for Bede’s Eostre). And then Grimm proceeded to claim that Bede’s invented deity was so primal to Germanic traditions that the Church was forced to name their holiest holiday after this ‘ancient’ spring festival of the Northern pagans. As if…
Ronald Hutton finally debunked the whole story. After showing that Bede invented a narrative to explain the German-speaking word for the observance of the death and resurrection of Christ, Hutton concludes that there is also scant evidence for any middle spring festival in the north of Europe that precedes Christianity. Bede’s ‘goddess’ was likely nothing more than that Germanic word for dawn, which is not associated with any time of year — though the word ‘eostre’ could also mean ‘opening’ — which is appropriate to spring, but not necessarily a name, let alone a goddess or a festival. Hutton also points out that, being busy with planting and the tending of young livestock, most commoners in Northern Europe would have been unable to take time out to attend to a late March festival. It was only the imposition of the Christian calendar that fixed a celebration in the midst of the intense work of spring.
Still, the name does exist. While Hutton does a decent job of showing that there was no goddess or celebration, neither he nor anyone else has quite managed to explain why the central mythic event in the Christian religion is named after the Saxon word for the month of April. But then, in the Romance languages the season is named after the Jewish observance of Passover. So Christianity seems to be oddly lacking in nomenclature for this their only reason for existence…
In any event, while there is no religious reason for the Christian Easter to be named as it is, there is also no evidence that there was anything of a festival in the English-speaking world prior to Christianity. Traditions tend to bolster this. There is little ritual activity that predates the Christian observance — though admittedly some of these Christian traditions are only vaguely related to the Christian holy day. However, it is notable that even agriculture is feted at the end-points of spring — before the work of planting and livestock tending begins or after the work load relaxes into summer. For the most part springtide revelry falls on the much more important cross quarter days that begin and end the season of renewal in European traditions.
There are some equinox traditions though, a few of which predate Christianity. One Easter custom that has little to do with the Resurrection of Christ and everything to do with the renewal of spring is that of giving eggs, often highly decorated. Decorated eggs are the central motif in spring myth in Southwest Asia and Eastern Europe and have been for thousands of years. There are gilded eggshells that have been found in Akkadian burials that date to the Bronze Age. The global symbolism of a Cosmic Egg, the source of all that is, was turned into high art and incredible ritual practice in the Ukraine. Making pysanky, the Ukrainian tradition of wax-relief egg painting, is the equivalent of quilting in the US. Everybody does it. It’s a communal act as often as not. Beautiful and complex works of art sit side-by-side with the efforts of children, both of which are sources of pride. Many of these eggs are handed down from one generation to the next. And there is a vast symbolic language, incorporating form and color, that can make each egg into a story — or a spell.
Pysanky are more than lovely craft-works. They are imbued with the meaning of that eternal renewal, the Cosmic Egg. They are used in protective charms throughout Eastern Europe. Eggs are kept in visible locations to ward off discord and harm. They are placed under cradles and beds to guard children and promote healing. They are given as house blessings to ensure long years of fortunate happiness. They are stored with seed stocks to promote fertility. Sometimes they are planted in the fields to repel the various forces that will ruin the harvest. And they are buried under foundations and sealed into walls to strengthen the household with protective spirits.
In the late 19th century, the St Petersburg jeweler, Peter Carl Fabergé, turned to this tradition to make astonishingly lush miniature worlds out of egg shells. He lavished his creations with precious metals and gemstones and vibrant glazing. Many of them contain complex clockwork mechanisms that play music or animate tiny figures. Several have been turned into icons through historical association with the Romanovs and other noble houses throughout Europe — or just because they are amazing! Museum tours of these artworks are always packed even a hundred years later. And I can attest to anything Fabergé-esque being a hot seller in the spring-time bookstore.
In contrast to the long traditions in the East, decorating eggs in England dates to not much before Henry VIII — who had his spring eggs silvered — and was largely a noble preoccupation until Victorian times. There were gilded eggs passed among those who could afford such things, and there are blood red eggs preserved in art (though not in actuality) which could only have been dyed (or completely imagined). Then later, local traditions developed — almost exclusively tied to the north and Scotland — of giving baskets of eggs to ambulatory beggars, mostly young boys. There might also have been some of the egg-rolling and egg-tossing games that were popular on the Continent. But the painted eggs so popular in Eastern Europe didn’t enter into the English imagination until well into the 20th century. Hutton claims that Londoners didn’t even know what an Easter egg was until the mid-19th century and that these customs didn’t become ubiquitous until World War II when American soldiers brought along their reworked ideas of painted eggs, the German Osterhase, and chocolate.
It may be that the Cosmic Egg just didn’t reverberate in the northwest of Europe. But it could also be the result of repression over the centuries. The Roman Catholic Church included eggs in its Lenten bans so that at the very time when poultry and wild birds were laying again, eating an egg was proscribed. Eggs were included in the fast most likely because it was the one delicacy that most commoners could obtain. Forbidding meat had little effect on peasant diets as they didn’t see meat on the boards but for maybe once or twice a year. However, most people kept chickens and geese, and there would usually have been eggs to eat by the equinox. So if they were to give up bodily pleasures, this was one that could actually be given up — though normally for only the latter part of Lent.
Furthermore, in a twist of noble cruelty, many manor lords demanded baskets of eggs for spring rent payments. In any case, it may be that eggs were just not very plentiful to the average commoner.
This is not an altogether satisfying explanation though, because in Orthodox traditions, where egg decorating traditions are strongest, eggs are strictly proscribed with all other forms of animal fats and protein. (As well as sugars, oils and alcohol — with no breaks for Fridays. Lots of cabbage and roots in the spring diets of easterners.) So the western disinterest in eggs might just stem from the lack of a native traditional mid-spring celebration in much of western Europe and particularly in the British Isles.
Significantly, there are few myths that take place in the middle of spring except for the Christian one. Though there are many myths that are tied to the reawakening of the green world, the most popular tales of renewal — those of the vegetation deities like Attis and Persephone — aren’t tied to mid-spring. Persephone, daughter of the grain goddess Demeter, was said to return to the sunlit world in early February, when early spring brings renewed growth to the Mediterranean region. Persephone’s mythic life began under the name Kore. Greek for ‘the maiden’, this name is derived from the same root, *ker-, as corn, the generic word for grain. It is literally translated as ‘to grow’. So Kore came back from her Underworld sojourn when the winter grain broke dormancy and began to grow — long before the equinox.
The Roman equivalent of Persephone, Proserpina or Libera, was honored during the Cerealia, the festival of Ceres, the Roman cognate of Demeter. This festival fell closer to the equinox than did Persephone’s day, coming at the end of April, but it has more in common with May Day than mid-spring. The rituals are almost as strange as those for Lupercalia. It’s hard to understand what tying lit torches to living foxes who were then set to run about the Circus Maximus has to do with grain, growth, or anything else. But then maybe this is another ritual that is older than the Roman festival that preserved it.
Another earthy festival of renewal happened closer to the vernal equinox in Rome. The Ides of March, the middle of the month in Roman times, saw the end of the New Year celebrations. The New Year festival culminated with the feast day of Anna Perenna, the goddess of perennial renewal. Though her name means ‘ring of the year’, Anna was less a solar deity than a goddess of the Earth. She might actually be an Etruscan version of Gaia, the earth mother. Some of her traditions are decidedly ‘earthy’, including telling bawdy jokes about Minerva and Mars among other things. But then, though there is a definite reason to associate her with spring renewal, there isn’t much ritual evidence that this is what is being celebrated on her day. (I’m not actually sure what was being celebrated…)
Adonis, Attis, Tammuz, and the other grain gods were typically honored at planting time, which was not in the middle of spring for the southern climates where these deities were honored. Indeed, Attis, Cybele’s slain lover, might have had a mid-winter holiday in his honor. Our tradition of decorating pine trees can be traced to his cult, where violets, symbolizing his blood, were festooned on an evergreen which was then carried around in procession. Adonis and the others were most often feted after midsummer, when the rains made planting possible.
Now, though the English-speaking world may not have celebrated a mid-spring holiday before Christianity (at which they time weren’t ‘English’ speaking…), and though Classical and Celtic myth have not preserved any obvious ties to this solar event, there is ample evidence that other inhabitants of Europe and other cultures around the globe did note and celebrate this day. And still do!
The most important holiday of the Zoroastrian year, Nowruz, is the vernal equinox. This New Year observance has been celebrated for thousands of years. This year’s celebration will be on Monday, 21 March, though I’ve seen other sources claiming it will fall on the equinox, 20 March. I suspect it might encompass both days, because why not!
Several spring festivals have broken off from Chinese New Year, the most substantial of which is the tradition of Hanami, ‘flower viewing’, in Japan, known in the west as the Cherry Blossom Festival. However, this is not so much an equinox festival as it is a celebration of an annual event that happens around the same time as the equinox. (It is not, however, the beginning of spring; that’s Chinese New Year.) Cherry trees bloom near the end of March in the warmer climes of Japan. This year sakura (cherry blossoms) are projected to open around 26 March. Also, because Japan gifted Washington DC with cherry trees in late March of 1912, the US capital now has a popular Cherry Blossom Festival as well. It is set to start on 20 March 2022 and will last into mid-April, though with warm weather coming earlier in spring, this year’s peak flowering is predicted for the four days around 24 March. There may not be blossoms by the end of the festival, so go early if that’s a goal.
Furthermore, though there are tenuous narrative connections with the vernal equinox in many places, we can still know that our ancestors the world over honored this time. They left incontrovertible evidence in stone. There are Paleolithic and Bronze Age monuments all around the globe with alignments to the vernal equinox.
One of the oldest, Newgrange in the Boyne Valley of Ireland, predates the oldest Egyptian pyramids by almost a thousand years. Better known for its winter solstice alignment, this massive monument also marks the sunrise closest to the vernal equinox. On this morning, sunlight will pierce through to the dark center of the mound and illuminate what we now call the Stone of Time. This stone is carved with glyphs, many of which appear to be flowers and rainbows. This whole structure is magnificent and eerie, though its significance is almost completely lost in time. (But then again, flowers and rainbows haven’t changed in the last 5000 years.)
The most dramatic alignment is in the northern Yucatan in Mexico. Called Chichén Itzá by the Maya, this temple complex honored the Feathered Serpent, Kukulcan, cognate to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. The site’s name can be translated as ‘the brim of the well where the Wise Men of the Water live’ and from that we can see that this place has deep ties to water. It is possible that a sacred well, a cenote, is at the base of the main pyramid, though modern archeology has not seen it.
On the vernal equinox, a snaking beam of sunlight slithers down one of the pyramid’s stone staircases. Light forms a trail of seven half-diamonds that seem to connect to a massive stone snake’s head at the base of the stairway. The symbolism is pretty clear: The rains come from the Plumed Serpent; and the ruling class, those with the power to please Kukulcan, therefore had some control over water. It is likely that this whole complex was built during a time of prolonged drought. So there is probably an implicit (if not explicit) message to the Mayan people, telling them, ‘Not to worry folks, we’ve got this under control. Friends in high places, and all that’. Still, if the monsoon patterns were at all similar around 900AD when this complex was being built, then the rains — when they did fall — did actually arrive not long after the vernal equinox. However, one wonders what happened on the years when the Plumed Serpent’s trip down the stairs failed to herald rain…
Which brings me to my last point. Spring celebrations are nebulous mainly because spring is nebulous. It can be abrupt and sharp, with snow one week and daffodils the next, or protracted and vague, with long weeks of cold grey almost imperceptibly giving way to summer. It is, of course, highly latitude dependent. Many parts of the world have no season of spring at all, and most of the world celebrates a season of renewal when the rains finally break the heat of Midsummer, not in spring at all.
Similarly, there is no global agricultural cycle that says planting happens at this time of year. It likely doesn’t. Some folks may be planting hardy vegetables in their kitchen gardens this time of year, but much of the planting for summer harvest happens when the soil is warmed up, long after March. And a good portion of the root and grain planting happens in autumn. In the barn, middle spring is already well into the season of renewal. Lambing may be over by late March. Goats may be working on the next round… (Because goats…) On the other hand, though there is enough daylight to prompt hens to lay eggs, if it’s cold still they may not start until later when their bodies are less stressed. (Which is one more point to be made on egg decorating… Since the custom didn’t start in England much before the Little Ice Age, it may be there weren’t many eggs to decorate at equinox time — and not enough of a native tradition to bother with forcing the issue.)
Moreover, spring varies. The equinox might fall every year at roughly the same time, but spring fluctuates wildly. Some years there are leaves on the birches even in Maine mountains by the end of March. Some years there is ice in Texas as late as April. (Most of the country seems on track for the latter in 2022.) And in cold climates, even when warm weather might begin early enough to wake the green world in time for the equinox, there is always a good chance that a late freeze will spread black wilt over everything. So though a day of warming is always delightful after the cold, its benefits to the orchards and fields might be dubious. Like the Germans who would rather a wolf than a sunbeam in their sheep pens in February, it is maybe bad luck to wish for early warming, more a reason for trepidation than celebration.
In summary, what is being celebrated around the middle of spring is rooted in specific locations and cultures. Picking out elements to include in your observances, even if they derive from cultures inhabited by your own ancestors, might end up being sort of meaningless. For example, a celebration that is focused on the return of flowers in my home town in late March is nonsense. Literally. There is nothing to sense. There are no actual flowers. Today, there isn’t even any bare soil, with or without sprouting plants; it’s all snow. I would have to go to pretty extreme lengths to incorporate blooms into my observance. And that is, I think, the opposite of following an Earth-based seasonal cycle.
So consider well what life in your place is doing this time of year. Learn about local traditions, those of all the peoples who have lived where you now live. (This is not carte blanche to steal Indigenous ideas; but it’s helpful to learn from them since these traditions are usually grounded in centuries if not millennia of real-life experiences.) Find out when planting happens and what is being planted. Find out when green leaves will return to trees and when you can expect flowers. Notice the return of migrating birds and any increased activity around the feeders and in the treetops. Look for bees. Watch for the chipmunks. When they get up, it’s spring. (Unless they’re living in your walls, in which case… move…) There are similar indicator species the world over. If you have a spring to celebrate at all, you likely have some plant or animal that will always be its herald.
If you don’t have a spring, well, you can still celebrate; but perhaps your observance will be more quietly cerebral, focused on things like balance and a more generic concept of renewal. The cycle of life. Because there is a cycle wherever you are. It is your job to discover its ways and meanings.
But all this means that the actual day of the equinox is probably not all that important. Don’t fret about calendars. They are tools made by humans to help guide us. Like all maps there are imperfections. Make your own calendar rooted in your own experience. It will be more accurate and easier to follow. But it will also be far more meaningful because it is mapped directly to your life.
From the Book Cellar
These are my main calendrical reference books:
The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays by Anthony Aveni. (2003, Oxford University Press)
The Oxford Companion to the Year by Bonnie Blackburn & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. (1999, Oxford University Press)
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th edition edited by Helene Henderson. (2009, Omnigraphics)
Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton. (1996, Oxford University Press)
In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth by Patricia Montley. (2005, Skinner House Books)
And here is a list of some of my favorite picture books on spring:
In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. (2011, Holiday House)
and then it’s spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead. (2012, Roaring Brook Press)
Spring Is Here by Heidi Pross Gray. (2013, A Cake in the Morn Books)
Spring Is Here: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand. (2011, Holiday House)
A New Beginning: Celebrating the Spring Equinox by Wendy Pfeffer, illustrated by Linda Bleck. (2008, Dutton Children’s Books)
Spring’s Sprung by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Greg Couch. (2002, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
Fletcher and the Springtime Blossoms by Julia Rawlinson, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke. (2009, Greenwillow Books)
Crafts to Make in the Spring by Cathy Ross, illustrated by Vicky Enright. (1998, Millbrook Press)
©Elizabeth Anker 2022