Traditions help mark end of winter and beginning of spring
by Jan Wiese Fales
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Yesterday was the first day of spring, or the vernal equinox — one of the two days each year when the hours of darkness and daylight are equal. Everyone knows that just because the calendar says it’s spring doesn’t mean winter won’t make a curtain call or two, but the stage is set for Earth’s eagerly anticipated rebirth.
Rites of spring are occurring all over the Northern Hemisphere.
Last weekend, I made a small bouquet of the earliest daffodil buds and forced branches of quince blossoms for the dining room table. My spirits lift every time my eyes light on it. My cold frames are stuffed with vegetable, herb and flower seedlings, and the onions and potatoes are ready and waiting for us to plant them in the garden.
The first lavender crocus blooms showed their delicate faces on Feb. 24. Since then, the yellow, gold and purple varieties have appeared in their familiar succession, eagerly greeted by both honeybees and my entire family. The witchhazel and hellebores also were blooming beautifully well before the first day of spring, and the yard is filled with the emerging greenery of daffodils, hyacinths and tulips.
Yesterday in New York City, Donna Henes hosted her 35th annual World Famous Equinox Celebration. Henes invited New Yorkers to bring their kids, percussion instruments and plenty of spirit to join her in an equinox ritual of balancing eggs on end. Legend has it this only will occur on the two days of the year when light and dark are balanced. Eggs actually have the same chance of balancing the other 363 days, but Henes’ event is a perfect rite of spring that invited families out of their houses to celebrate the reawakening of the natural world.
The practice of balancing eggs on the equinox is thought to have originated in China. The belief was that if eggs — symbols of fertility and rebirth — would balance on the equinox, when night and day were equal, the world was in harmony.
Eggs have long been a celebrated symbol of rebirth and are part of the creation and re-creation mythology of many cultures. Besides being balanced, eggs have been ritually buried, decorated and hidden.
A fertility festival celebrated by Germanic tribes on the vernal equinox was dedicated to the goddess of dawn, Ostara, who awoke from a winter slumber on that day. Likewise, the Saxons celebrated the fertility goddess Eostre on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. After these tribes were converted to Christianity, the pagan festivals became what we now know as Easter, and the practice of coloring eggs and placing them in baskets can be traced to ancient spring rituals. The Easter bunny — a rabbit being another symbol of fertility — also had origins in pagan myth.
Another common rite of spring is housecleaning. Getting rid of clutter is another way to begin anew. And replacing the stale air in the house by throwing open windows that have been shut tight against the cold is such a great release.
It’s hard to beat the pleasure of sleeping with open windows for the first time in months to hear the spring peepers calling out their love songs, even if a pile of covers is still necessary to stay warm.
Residents in the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, Md., where sailing is a popular pastime, celebrate their own rite of spring on the vernal equinox. Advertised as a primal urge to hasten good sailing weather by burning winter vestiges, locals gather and remove and burn their socks in a fire built for the occasion, acknowledging it soon will be warm enough to wear their docksiders without them.
The equinox heralds life after winter, whispering a promise that spring is right around the corner. I’m not quite ready to burn my socks, but that first barefoot day is high on my list of things to do when it finally gets here.
an Wiese-Fales is a Master Gardener who lives and pulls weeds at Mole Hill in rural Howard County. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.