With the arrival of spring equinox on March 20 — known as the first day of spring — and Easter just around the corner, I thought a look at spring celebrations throughout history and around the world would be interesting. In my research, I found that “spring” has been celebrated since civilization began. Ancient peoples figured out the day of both the spring and fall equinox.
What exactly is the equinox? The word “equinox” comes from the Latin words aequus and nox, which mean equal and night. The Earth tilts toward and away from the sun, which causes the seasons. The equinox is the day the sun crosses the equator, making the day and night equal.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the spring equinox signals the end of winter and the beginning of summer because the northern half of the Earth begins to tilt closer to the sun. In the fall equinox, the process reverses and winter begins.
For thousands of years, the spring and fall equinoxes have played an important role in cultures worldwide. Many ancient archeological sites mark them, with the designs of temples and other structures showing the sun's movements on the spring and fall equinox days.
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The Mayan people in Mexico and Central America built a great ceremonial pyramid called El Castillo that, on the spring equinox's exact day, showed the shadows traveling down a staircase. The shadows looked like a diamond-backed snake coming down the stairs. The Mayans called it "The Return of the Sun Serpent." Many such ancient structures around the world mark the exact day of the spring and fall equinox.
Just as there are many structures making the spring equinox, there are many traditions worldwide that celebrate the equinox, resurrection, rebirth and new beginning. It is interesting to see how similar they are even though they are from different countries and periods.
Ancient spring celebrations
Egypt: The Festival of Isis was held in ancient Egypt as a celebration of spring and rebirth. Her lover, Osiris, was killed, and her tears allowed the Nile to rise in the spring. Also, Osiris was said to have been resurrected in the spring, just as the later Christian Jesus was resurrected.
Ancient Rome: The goddess Cybele (the mother goddess of Rome) had a husband named Attis, born from a virgin, died and was resurrected on the spring equinox. Each year there was a big celebration to honor the goddess and Attis’ resurrection and rebirth. Also, the story of the Roman god Mithras is similar to the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Mithras was born at the winter solstice and resurrected in the spring. He helped his followers ascend to the realm of light after death.
Iran: The festival of No Ruz (meaning new day) began just before the spring equinox and is a time of hope and rebirth. Typically, a lot of cleaning was done, old broken items were repaired, homes were repainted, and fresh flowers were picked and brought indoors. People celebrated getting outside. No Ruz is deeply rooted in Zoroastrianism, the main religion in Persia before Islam came along. Today, the Persian New Year is celebrated on the spring equinox, not only in Iran but around the world.
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Italy: The ancient Romans celebrated the Feast of Cybele each spring. Cybele was a mother goddess and symbolized fertility. Her lover, Attis, committed suicide, but with the help of Zeus, Cybele was able to resurrect him. Attis' celebration is still celebrated today and is called Hilaria, observed from March 15 to March 28.
Russia: In Russia, the celebration of Maslenitsa is celebrated as the return of light and warmth. This folk festival is celebrated seven weeks before Easter. During the Lent season, meat, fish, and dairy products are prohibited. Maslenitsa is the last chance to enjoy these items for a while, so it is a big festival held before Lent's somber, reflective time. (Sounds a lot like Mardi Gras.) During the celebration, straw is burned and the ashes are spread in the fields to fertilize the year’s crops.
China: The Chinese custom is for people to try to balance eggs — a symbol of fertility — on the day of the spring equinox to bring good luck and prosperity. (Of course, the myth that eggs can balance on their ends on the day of the equinox is false as gravity, not sunshine, is the factor.) However, the egg as a symbol of fertility and birth is in many spring celebrations.
Passover and Easter
Easter is associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover and the springtime exodus of the Jews, led by Moses, from slavery in Egypt to a new beginning and life in the Promised Land. The Last Supper was essentially a Passover feast that included eggs. Easter was initially derived from the word "Eostre" or "Estre," the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.
The ancient Greeks held festivals to welcome Eostre/Eastre and the onset of spring. (Note: From the ancient name for Easter (Eostre), we derive the scientific terminology for the female hormone and reproduction cycle: estrogen and estrus.)
There are many complex holidays, but Easter, with its candy eggs, playful bunnies and serious religious elements, might be one of the most perplexing. As you can see from the above worldwide historical spring celebrations, Easter is a combination of ancient fertility symbols from various cultures (primarily Roman and Celtic) with the Christian tradition celebrating the rebirth of Jesus, added to the modern commercial consumerism of a holiday.
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As one historian put it, “We celebrate the rebirth of a savior by eating chocolate eggs that were delivered and/or laid by a giant magic rabbit.” However, this all makes sense when you look at history and understand that early Christian missionaries adapted a tremendous amount of the cultures from where they were doing their work into the Christian faith. This was done to make the people feel comfortable and accept the "new" religion. Eventually, the Christian celebration of Easter absorbed and took the “pagan” spring festivals.
Here are some examples:
Dying Easter eggs: Eggs represent rebirth and life. To celebrate spring, ancient peoples colored eggs and gave them to friends and family as gifts. As Christian legend has it, Mary brought eggs to Jesus’ crucifixion. Blood from his wounds fell on the eggs, coloring them red. Another Christian story is that Mary brought a basket of colored eggs to share with other women at Jesus' tomb three days after his death. When they rolled back the stone and found the tomb empty, the eggs turned red.
Easter Bunny: Throughout history, rabbits have been a symbol of fertility. But why does the Easter Bunny bring eggs? The legend is that Eostre (the goddess of spring) found a wounded bird on the ground in late winter. She transformed it into a hare to save its life, but the transformation was not a complete one. The bird took the appearance of a hare, made a nest to keep warm, but kept the ability to lay eggs. The hare would decorate the eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre. Anglo-Saxon children would make baskets stuffed with shredded grass to symbolize the rabbit’s nest and hunt for the eggs.
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Sunrise service: Ancient peoples got up early to welcome the sun on the equinox and celebrate spring's rebirth. In the Christian story, Mary opened Jesus’ tomb at dawn on Easter morning to find it empty. In honor of the occasion, many churches hold services at sunrise to commemorate the resurrection and rebirth of Jesus.
Easter ham: In ancient times, hunters slaughtered hogs in the forest in the fall, then left them to cure all winter. By spring, pork was one of the only meats ready for spring celebrations. As with other ancient rituals, Christianity adopted the tradition as its own. Sixty-seven percent of Americans serve ham at their Easter dinners, which typically breaks any meat fast that is practiced during Lent.
People have celebrated the beginning of spring for thousands of years. No matter the time and place, peoples’ traditions and customs symbolized rebirth, fertility, a new beginning and new hope. This should be of no surprise as we all live on the same Earth, depend on the same sun and have the same basic needs.
This spring, as you celebrate longer days, warmer temperatures, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc., take a moment to realize how similar we all are, no matter where we live, our race, gender, ethnicity, wealth (or lack of it), culture and religious traditions. This understanding is a big step toward world peace. We are all people of this Earth.
23 stories explaining the Central Coast's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale
Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work.
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Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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