A week of much-needed rain has at last brought spring green of the Santa Monica Mountains, carpeting hillsides in emerald growth just in time for the official start of spring. The vernal equinox occured on March 20, at 9:15 a.m. this year. It’s the moment when the sun crosses the equator, and day and night are of equal length.
This astronomical event marks the arrival of what is traditionally one of the holiest and most celebrated times of the year. Many ancient ceremonial sites were designed to mark the equinox. The list includes Stonehenge; the Pyramid of Kukulkán in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza; Mnajadra, an ancient temple on the Island of Malta, dating to 3600 BC; Angkor Wat in Cambodia; and the prehistoric Native American ruins at Hovenweep, on the Colorado-Utah border.
For most Americans, Easter and Passover are the main spring holidays. Both observances are tied to the lunar cycle, occurring around the time of the first full moon following the vernal equinox, with one major difference.
The Jewish calendar, which begins in late September or early October, is based on the lunar cycle, using 12 months of 29 or 30 days. The events celebrated by Christians at Easter occurred at Passover and the two holidays usually coincide. However, the Jewish calendar incorporates a special “leap month” every few years to keep it on track with the solar cycle. In those years, Passover and Easter can become separated by several weeks, but both holidays remain connected to the vernal equinox, and neither can occur before the official start of spring.
For obvious reasons, Passover and Easter share some of the same traditions, but there is another major spring festival that shares many elements: Norooz,or Nowruz, the 13-day new year’s celebration that originated in ancient Persia with the Zorastrians, and is still celebrated in Iranian communities and amongst the Kurds, Tajiks, Afghans, and other cultures of the Near East and Indian Subcontinent.
The Westward Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library hosted a Nowruz celebration for families on March 17. The festival featured a puppet show, traditional music, children’s crafts including egg painting, storytime and a “haft seen,” the traditional, lavishly decorated Nowruz table.
Nowruz, which begins on the first day of spring, means “new day.” It is celebrated with festive decorations and spring symbols of birth and renewal like newly sprouted grass, butterflies, flowers, and even live goldfish, as well as special foods—fruits, nuts, and colored hard-boiled eggs, a tradition shared by many at Easter.
Easter, a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, has absorbed a number of earlier traditions, including ancient symbols of rebirth like eggs, lilies, and even the Easter rabbit, thought by some to be a symbol of Eostre, a Northern European goddess said by some—including the eighth century Anglo Saxon scholar known as the Venerable Bede—to be the source of the name Easter.
In Nepal and other parts of the Himalayas and northern India, Holi, the festival of colors, is celebrated just before the equinox. The holiday marks the victory of light over dark, and the end of winter.
In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day, or Shunbun no Hi, is a national holiday. Families celebrate with visits to bring flowers or rice cakes to family graves and shrines, or by visiting parks or the countryside to commune with nature.
In 1991, a new Spring Equinox tradition was created in Sweden: National Storytelling Day. Global Storytelling Day is now celebrated in communities all over the world.
“The idea is to have as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible,” the movement’s website, http://www.globalstorytellingday.org, states. “Doing so, we promote oral storytelling all over the world. We also get a chance to build friendships across national and cultural borders in joyful ways, as if we meet around a global campfire.”
It’s also an opportunity to weave together all the threads of tradition connected to the spring equinox, and its message of rebirth and transformation.