After this season of welcome yet torrential rain in Northern California, and unwelcome but relentless bad news regarding the current administration, the coming of spring may offer to many a measure of relief. Regardless of political or environmental climate, most every culture has long acknowledged this changing of the season with unique celebrations and holidays.
Beginning in countries all around the world and still celebrated near and far, here are some of the grandest celebrations of springtime.
Shunbun no Hi – Japan
Image: I Love JPN
Japan’s Shunbun no Hi takes place on the spring equinox, and stands in the middle of a seven-day period called, Haru no Higan (Spring Higan). For Buddhists, the word higan means “the further shore,” referring to the belief that there is a river separating this life and the next. It is also a fitting word for festival times, when many people return to visit their homes and ancestral places. When the hours of light and dark are equal on the spring equinox, Buddha is said to appear to help stray souls cross the river between the earthly world and Nirvana. To support their ancestors in the crossing, people spend part of the day tending to the graves of their ancestors, washing tombstones, praying, weeding, lighting incense, and leaving flowers.
Sake and rice cakes covered with bean powder are a traditional food during Haru no Higan, and ancestors are presented with traditional ohagi or botamochi (sweet rice balls covered with red bean paste), to nourish them as they journey to the next world.
Nowruz – Middle East and Asia
Image: Read The Spirit
Nowruz translates to “The New Day” in Persian, and marks the beginning of the New Year in Iran, typically falling near the vernal equinox in March. It is a 13-day celebration of the end of an old year and the start of a new one, the length a symbolic rejection of the bad luck traditionally associated with the number 13. Originating in ancient ideas of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions which predates both Christianity and Islam, this holiday is a triumph of good over evil, while acknowledging their complementary workings. Now a secular holiday, it is celebrated across religious traditions in Iran. Nowruz is a time for extensive cleaning to wipe away the dust, grime, and sadness, when people purchase new clothes, visit family and friends, and seek overall renewal and a blank slate.
The last Wednesday before Nowruz is called the “Eve of Red Wednesday,” when communities build huge public bonfires and jump over them as they repeat a single phrase that translates roughly into “Give me your beautiful red color, and take back my sickly pallor!”
Nowruz is centered around a symbolic meal called Haft Sīn (the seven S’s), which features seven symbolic foods all starting with the letter “s”.
– Sabzeh: a sprout or grass which grows in the weeks before the holiday, for rebirth and renewal
– Senjed: Dried fruit, ideally the sweet fruit from a lotus tree, for love
– Sib: Apples, for beauty and health
– Seer: Garlic, for medicine and taking care of onesel
– Samanu: A sweet pudding, for wealth and fertility
– Serkeh: Vinegar, for the patience and wisdom that comes with age
– Sumac: A Persian spice made from crushed sour red berries, for the sunrise of a new day
After these seven essentials, each family adds customized traditional foods and practices of their own. Greens and herbs are central, representing themes of freshness and renewal, while eggs symbolize fertility and life.
On the 13th day, families take the sabzeh that’s been growing at their table to a natural body of running water, and throw the plant in to release the old and usher in the New Year.
Return of the Sun Serpent – Mexico
Image: Atlas Obscura
Twice a year, on the spring and fall equinoxes and for a full week before and after each, the setting sun creates an astonishing sight on the steps of El Castillo. At the center of Chichén Itzá, the complex ruins of a Mayan city on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, is a 79-foot pyramid of stone that “embodies Mayan myth”. As the sun sets during these weeks, a trick of light and shadow from the stepped terraces of the pyramid makes it appear as if a snake is slowly sliding down the stairway of the pyramid. Each year, thousands of people gather to watch this phenomenon, once viewed by ancient Mayans as the manifestation of the god Kukulkán, the feathered serpent. The large snake head structures, into which the shadow snake slides, causes experts to believe that the shadow snake was an intentional occurrence.
In fact, the entire structure of El Castillo seems designed with astronomical intent and understanding. For instance, the west plane of the pyramid faces the zenith passage sunset. And all four steep staircases have 91 steps with one final step at the top making a total of 365 steps, matching the days in a solar year. 91 is also the number of days between each of the four phases of the annual solar cycle: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox.
Holi, Festival of Colors – India
This year, March 13 marks the beginning of the new season in India, with the Festival of Colors signaling a time of fun and freedom from restrictions. Numerous legends were associated with the origin of this holiday, with the bonfires the night before said to represent the great faith that sustained Prahlad, follower of Lord Vishnu, when he was seized and burnt by the demoness Holika.
Of huge social significance, Holi is a time to celebrate with dear ones, to fix strained relationships, and people are motivated purely by fun, and all prayers or sermons are absent. Revelers take to the streets to throw handfuls of colorful powder and water at each other. Pranks and practical jokes abound, as friends and family and neighbors push each other into pools of colored water or mud.
It is a country-wide social sanction to have fun, with bright colors lifting moods, a practice which may be originally linked to a time when natural, colorful medicinal plants were used to cure fever. This holiday is also celebrated with special treats like the sweet, creamy thandai drink, puran poli, the sweet, buttery flatbread made with lentils, spices and jaggery, and dahi vada, the savory snack of lentil, chickpea, or potato fritters soaked in dahi (thick Indian yoghurt).
Las Fallas – Spain
The population of Valencia triples in size during the annual celebration of Las Fallas every March from the 1-19th. The 16-19th are the most important days of this Festival of Noise and Fire, but every day mascleta, a 10-minute display of fireworks and firecrackers in each neighborhood, is repeated to a different tune. For months beforehand, huge papier mâché monuments, called fallas, are constructed for the festival. At the beginning of the festival, they are part of a procession to honor Saint Joseph, and spend the rest of the celebration displayed in the city square. On the final night of the festival, an enormous bonfire is built to burn the fallas, which are often stuffed with firecrackers.
As a street festival, this celebration is big about the food, with stalls selling mojitos, caipirinhas, and beer in addition to other specialties. Paella is one of the most signature foods, especially since this recipe was first created near the city of Valencia, and can often be seen cooked over coals in the street. Pumpkin buñuelos and cream-filled and chocolate-dipped churros are other treats unique to this festival, disappearing along with the stalls after it is over.
Sacred Pipe Ceremony – Lakota Tribe, Midwest
For the Lakota people of the midwest, the vernal equinox once signaled the beginning of the migration to their home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and started a series of ceremonies welcoming life on earth after winter. Hundreds of years ago the Lakota noted that the sun rose in the constellation known as the Dried Willow every spring, and marked the changing of the season with an equinoctial Sacred Pipe ceremony. Using tobacco made from the inner bark of the red willow, this was meant to rekindle the sacred fire of life on Earth, and would briefly send souls of the deceased to rest in the core of the Milky Way.
Lakota wasn’t a settled agricultural society, but followed the buffalo across the midwestern plains. Their awareness and knowledge of the movements of the sun and stars and the passing of new moons guided the Lakota through the seasonal cycles, giving notice of upcoming changes. Many of Lakota heritage still participate in such ceremonies today
Walpurgis Night – Europe and Scandinavia
Image: Go Scandinavia
Later in the spring, people in northern Europe and Scandinavia welcome the traditional holiday Walpurgis Night, on April 30. Originating in the middle ages when this day was the end of the administrative year, farmers and peasants and merchants and craftsmen alike would celebrate that close and the coming spring with bonfires, singing, dancing, trick-or-treating, depending on the region.
In Sweden, revelers spend a day singing traditional spring folk songs and lighting bonfires, celebrating not just within their own families, but in a public event with the entire village or neighborhood. Because the following day, May 1, is a national holiday, people celebrating Walpurgis Night often party long into the early morning hours. Sprigs of greenery are hung from houses and barns to ward off evil spirits, and slices of bread with butter and honey are left as offerings for the phantom hounds. Nettle soup, made from the fresh weeds that pop up after the snow has melted, is a popular dish to warm partiers in the still chilly evenings with the freshness of the coming warmth.
Germany’s participants celebrate by dressing in costumes, playing pranks on people, and creating loud noises meant to keep evil away.
Welcoming spring, saying goodbye to winter, ringing in new years, and acknowledging legend and religion, these next few months are filled with celebrations for reasons as varied and wide as our world. In the middle of what seems like some of our darkest days, may you have a bright and fresh vernal equinox and spring season.
What celebrations have you and your ancestor’s celebrated? Which do you pass on to your family today?