Welcome hither, As is the Spring to the earth.
The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (Act 5, Scene 1)
Today is the first day of spring, the spring equinox. In the UK it’s also Census Day, if you needed a reminder to send yours in!
As usual with days like this, it led me to ask myself: what is an equinox and how does half the world celebrate?
What is an equinox?
Each day this year I’m be reading a page from The Shakespeare Almanac by Royal Shakespeare Company Director Gregory Doran. Today’s entry is quite useful:
Equinox literally means ‘equal night’ [in latin]. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, day and night are the same length. Since the early Egyptians built the Sphinx to face directly towards the rising sun on the day of the vernal (spring) equinox, this moment has been celebrated ritually by succeeding civilisations.
The Christian church observed Easter on the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. But because the date varies slightly from year to year (the various phases of the moon only repeat exactly every 19 years), the church decided to plump for March 21st as the official ecclesiastical vernal equinox.
Watch out for the next full moon, the Paschal Moon, and Easter will fall on the following Sunday. Today, therefore is the first day of spring.
So there you have it!
How is half the world celebrating?
It’s only the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere of course, but that’s a pretty big group of people celebrating…
- In Britain
I had to start on home ground first!
How we celebrate… Paganism was the dominant belief system in Britain from around the 5th century AD until around the 8th century AD, when Christianisation took hold across Europe.
One of the biggest pagan celebrations to have persevered is the equinox celebration that centres on Stonehenge in Wiltshire. It started many hours ago around 6am —though, as you can see, it was a little cloudy.
A bit of cloud or drizzle couldn’t dampen the spirits of Druids who celebrate the spring equinox – which they call Alban Eilir – as they have not one but three different festivals.
From shamrocks and egg painting to hares and rabbits, they also continue traditions and use symbols that have been adopted so widely that we tend not to know they are pagan in origin. Read more about them here.
Courtesy The Severn Bore
Rising tides… Did you know that tides rise during an equinox? The pull exerted on the Earth by the moon and the Sun is what creates tides. Twice a year during the equinoxes, the Sun’s gravitational pull on the Earth is highest, leading to so-called ‘great tides’, many feet higher than normal. The River Severn in Gloucestershire attracts surfers and kayakers year round, even more so over the spring equinox.
Courtesy James Pett @ Wikimedia Commons
Mid-Lent… You might think of Simnel Cake as specific to Easter, but its traditions go back to Mothering Sunday.
If like me you’ve given something up for Lent, you’ll know that we’re four weeks into a six week stint. Traditionally around this time last week used to be known as Mid-Lent Sunday. Because servants and apprentices would use the day to see their mothers, it became known as Mothering Sunday.
Of the two food traditions on this day (a porridge called frumenty is the other), Simnel Cake has stuck. Maidservants would give their mothers a cake with a layer of almond paste baked into the middle, so it became known as mothering cake too. Nowadays, there’s a whole lot of marzipan going on too, as above.
Why is it called Simnel cake? Lambert Simnel was a man who got caught up in a 1487 uprising against the newly-crowned Henry VII. When I say caught up, I mean that men who were against Henry claimed Lambert was Edward Plantagenet with a claim to the throne. The rebellion was quashed but Lambert was spared, and for a time ended up in the King’s kitchens, where he is said to have invented Simnel Cake.
Cool story, except for the fact that Simnel Cake predates poor Lambert, with references found at least 200 years before. The word likely derives from the latin word simila meaning ‘fine flour’, which also gives us the word semolina, which is a course flour a bit like polenta.
Either way, if you’re feeling rebellious, you could give this Simnel cake traybake a go.
Or you could follow the example of the Swedes and bake some cardamom and almond-scented, vanilla cream-filled Semla cakes. They used to be made only on Shrove Tuesday but are now so popular that you can get them throughout spring up to Easter.
2. The Hindu festival of Holi
I came across this image by Tom Watkins. It might look like normal Holi celebrations but in fact shows Hindu widows, normally forbidden from taken part, enjoying Holi in Vrindavan, northern India, thanks to the NGO Sulabh international.
What is Holi? At its most basic, it is a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It’s thought also to relate to the story of the defeat of the evil king Hiranyakashipu by his son Prahlad, who survived his sister’s attempt to do her father’s bidding and kill him in a fire.
What happens at Holi? Taking place in late March each year (this year it would be 28-29 March), Holi is famously known as the ‘festival of colour’ for the crowds of festival goers exuberantly throwing paint powder and water at each other, though they also sing and dance. This actually all happens on day two of the festival — it begins the day before with revellers lighting bonfires, throwing popcorn, chickpeas and coconut into them.
I feel like next year the whole world should hold a Holi festival to celebrate the end of the pandemic…
3. Poland’s pagan Slavic Goddess
Courtesy Tomasz Kuran via Wikimedia Commons
Już wiosenne słonko wzbija się po niebie
W tej wezbranej rzece utopimy ciebie!
As the spring sun rises in the sky of blue
in this swollen river we are drowning you!
This medieval tradition is a little macabre… Topienie Marzanny (‘drowning of Marzanna’) involves making an effigy of the goddess out of straw, linen and beads which at dusk on the spring equinox is burned and then ‘drowned’ in a nearby river. Who would want to hurt a Slavic goddess? Well, apparently, Marzanna is the overseer of winter, plague and death, which means she’s not much-loved.
After being thrown in the drink, the effigy is carried from house to house (usually by girls) with dancing and singing and sometimes donations collected for the local church or a charity. Technically all for a good cause then?!
A rare survival… Poland is a very Catholic country which means that there aren’t many traditionally pagan rituals or celebrations knocking about these days, but it’s a testament to the strength of feeling about the approach of spring that this one is still going.
If we’re honest… Teaching kids of make the doll of a woman and set her on fire then drown her shouldn’t perhaps be so prominent on a curriculum, but I suppose we’ve got Guy Fawkes here in the UK… moving on!
4. Gardens of Adonis
I had to give this a mention, it’s so fascinating.
Given spring’s long association with birth, rebirth and renewal, and flowers resurfacing after a winter hibernation, it’s not surprising that women all over ancient Italy used to plant seeds at this time. The plots they planted them in were called Gardens of Adonis — which is where is gets all Greek.
If you know your Greek mythology, you’ll know that Adonis was the mortal lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love. He favoured her above other goddesses but died at the hands of the goddess of wild animals, Artemis, who set a wild boar on him in revenge for Aphrodite killing a follower, Hippolytus.
In Ancient Greece, women took part in a festival called Adonia, mourning the death of Adonis with singing and dancing. They also – get this – planted fennel, lentil and lettuce seeds, whose fast growth and withering symbolised their mourning and worship.
It makes sense, then, that in Italy these seeds (as well as flowers) would be planted at the spring equinox and transferred to family graves, ready to bloom (and wither away) on Good Friday and over Easter. One of so many ways that ancient and pagan traditions have merged with Christian traditions — Gardens of Adonis are still planted in Sicily apparently.
5. Sakura and Sanzu
A feature on spring would be incomplete without… mentioning the Japanese obsession with cherry blossom. The spring equinox is called shunbun in Japanese but really this time of year is all about the sakura season, waiting for and picnicking (hanami parties) under the freshly flowering cherry blossom trees. Meanwhile, elegant plum blossom is the first to appear and should get some credit for being the first true sign of spring in Japan.
Buddhism origins… The spring equinox is actually in the middle of a week-long Buddhist holiday known as Higan whose origins can be traced back to reign of Emperor Shōmu in the mid-700s AD. The word higan means ‘other shore’ and refers to the mythological Sanzu River which separates this life from the afterlife. Paying respect to ancestors through services and by heading to one’s hometown is the usual way of things.
Though this year the Japanese public is advised not to hold hanami picnic parties, nothing can stop the blossom forecasts.
6. Happy Nowruz
Courtesy Salar Arkan @ Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy Rye-96 @ Wikimedia Commons
Nowruz means… ‘new day’, as it is the first day of the Persian new year. Nowruz celebrations centre on Iran, but over 300 million people around the world celebrate it in some way (and have done so for 3,000 years), especially around the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia and other areas of the Middle East.
The two images above represent the contrast of cultures celebrating Nowruz, even within Iran itself. While a shopping mall in the country’s capital Tehran displays the symbols of spring for busy shoppers, a grandmother and her grandchild celebrate wearing traditional Kurdish dress 580km away in the small village of Besaran, close to the border with Iraq.
Celebrations are so widespread across the world that the UN recognises 21st March as International Nowruz Day.
What goes on? As you would expect from a giant, 300-million strong celebration, there are many different traditions and ways to celebrate. Here are a few:
- In normal times, communities come together to share food and celebrate together.
- In most celebrating households (and shopping malls it would seem) there is a Haft Sin table, displaying items that begin with the letter S in the Farsi alphabet — wheat grass, garlic, vinegar and herbs. Each item has meaning, from garlic (Sir) to protect against illness to plates of growing wheatgrass (Sabzeh) which symbolise regeneration.
- Goldfish are a popular addition to the household, symbolising good luck.
- Houses are cleaned, new clothes are bought.
- Nowruz isn’t just one day, celebrations and rituals go on for 13 days. Despite the unlucky nature of the number, on day 13 every household’s growing wheatgrass is thrown into flowing water. This is deemed to counter any bad luck and absorb all the negative energy from the home…
Another tradition that perhaps we should all consider adopting when this pandemic is over?
Now, I best get on with filling in that census…