A History of Spring Traditions

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An American painted lady makes a spring meal of a flowering head of garlic chives.
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No, they don’t balance.
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Sprouted seedlings reach for the spring sun.
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Soon the new plants will be ready for the garden.
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In early spring, frost may still rime the windows in the morning, but we can feel the promise of a new season in each passing day. Almost imperceptibly, the sun warms, the day lengthens, and the air seems pure and thin as it takes on the scent of freshly turned soil, emerging green, and soft rains. Spring is a time of awakening, of healing and renewal, of the dawning and planting of new ideas. The world seems young and virgin again.

In February, many of us are still winter’s captive, so we plan, wait, and listen for the song of the lark, which heralds good luck and good weather. We can sip a tea of sage and honey as we thumb the garden catalogs, and on a fair day, we may go outside to lift that first shovelful of dirt or turn the compost pile.

In March, on the other hand, spring is official no matter what the weather report says. It arrives this year at 1:46 a.m. on March 21 (8:46 p.m. EST on March 20). That’s the vernal equinox, the time that the sun crosses the Earth’s equator from south to north and one of only two times in the year when day and night are equal in length. (The vernal equinox doesn’t fall on the same day every year because the length of the calendar year doesn’t quite correspond with that of the solar year; the first day of spring varies from March 19 to March 21.)

Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, is April 4 this year, and in most states, that date also marks the beginning of Daylight Saving Time, when we know the sun is here to stay.

In earlier times, the vernal equinox was considered the beginning of the new year. It has always been an important day to those who work the land because it signifies the beginning of the season of regeneration and growth. We can empathize with the ancients’ joy at the resurrection of the sun god from the underworld. It’s spring! The thought makes me want to braid fresh flowers into my hair and perform pagan rituals.

Folklore has it that the vernal equinox is the only day of the year when an egg can be stood on its end. Even though that’s not true, we can admire the imagery. Eggs are, in fact, nature’s perfect symbol for springtime and new beginnings. In March, when life is quickening in its seemingly miraculous annual way, we can’t help but ponder the cosmic egg of creation. Our newly hatched world is green, new, fresh, and as innocent as the dawn.

I can but trust that good shall fall at last–far off– at last, to all and every winter change to spring. —Tennyson

Spring legends

The phoenix earned its legendary immortality by refusing to eat from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. Every 500 years, the bird is said to create a nest of herbs and spices, rest on it, and set itself on fire. After the fire dies down, an egg laid by the phoenix is found among the ashes. The egg hatches, and the phoenix emerges, resurrected.

Eggs have been associated with spring rituals for millennia. Ancient Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Gauls, and Chinese all embraced the egg as a symbol of the universe, and today, eggs are as much a part of Easter, and spring­time, as Easter bonnets and fancy flowers.

The word “Easter” is linked to the Old English word for “east” and owes its origin to a pagan spring festival that itself is derived from the Latin root for the word “dawn.” Dawn begins in the east, and both Easter and springtime mark a new dawning.

In pre-Christian Europe, Anglo-­Saxons worshipped Eostre (or Ostara), the moon goddess of spring and fertility. She was always portrayed as standing among spring flowers and holding an egg in her hand. Her sacred animal was the hare, which laid eggs to honor her and encourage her fruitfulness.

The Druid goddess of fertility, Blodeuwedd, was the first of a long line of Flower Women revered by the Celts. (Guinevere, who married the King Arthur of legend, was a Flower Woman.) Blodeuwedd’s face and hair were portrayed in spring flowers, and Celts knew the path of a Flower Woman by the patches of white clover that bloomed in her wake. She was the goddess not only of fertility but also of magic, innocence, and dawn.

Later Christians appropriated and adapted many pagan traditions and symbols for their own celebration of resurrection. Another reason eggs became a part of this religious holiday is that they were one of the foods forbidden during Lent, the forty-day period of fasting and penitence that ends on Easter Sunday. In rural households, eggs were always plentiful in the springtime.

One Easter custom of early Christians was to add perfume or fragrant oils to holy water and sprinkle it around the house, on pets, and in food to ensure blessings. On Easter Monday, men would wake women with a sprinkling of the fragrant Easter water and speak the words “May you never wither”.

Easter fancy

Why are Easter eggs dyed and beautified? There are many traditions to explain this custom.

Before the Druids buried eggs in newly plowed fields to coax the goddess of spring from her winter hibernation and to ensure abundance and fertility, they dyed them red, the color of menstrual blood, to draw the life force to the land.

In ancient Egypt and Persia, where spring was celebrated as the beginning of the year, decorated eggs were exchanged at the equinox, eggs being the universal symbol of creation and fertility. In England, a royal household record from 1290 indicates that King Edward I ordered 450 eggs to be dyed or gilded for Easter gifts.

Polish legends tell of miracles. One has the Virgin Mary delivering eggs to the soldiers at the cross, begging them to be kind; as she wept, her tears fell on the eggs and spotted them with brilliant color. Another maintains that when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, she brought along eggs with her for a meal; when she arrived and uncovered the eggs, the white shells had taken on the colors of the rainbow.

Today, we boil eggs, dye them in gay colors, and hide them for our children to hunt. We have chocolate eggs, marzipan eggs, and new little yellow fluff-ball chicks. That hero of the day, the Eas­ter Bunny, earned his job by his habit of laying eggs all over the place. (Children never seem to question why a bunny would leave chicken eggs.)

Create your own rituals

Clover and other three-leaved plants were once considered spring gifts from the fairies to protect us and bring luck. Other herbs that have been associated with spring rituals through history include vervain, a sacred herb for witches that supposedly ensured wealth, love, and protection; honeysuckle, for vision and inspiration; and broom, which was burned to purify homes and protect their inhabitants.

Today, as we watch the season unfold, we’re apt to bring pussy willow or forsythia branches indoors to open their flowers in the warmth. We look for the early bulbs, whose bright color is so welcome after the drab dormancy of winter. We search out the new shoots of chives and chervil and other early risers to bring a touch of freshness to salads and cooked vegetables. And we become increasingly aware of the world waking from its winter slumber.

Like animals coming out of hibernation, we find new energy in this ­season of promise. We launch spring-cleaning projects. We shed our heavy coats and dark clothes to enjoy the occasional warm days of early spring. If we like, we can gather materials to dye our Easter eggs the way the pagans did — with vegetable and plant material.

And many of us begin the satisfying ritual of sprouting seeds under lights in the basement or in a sunny window. Germinating seeds of favorite herbs is a wonderful way to experience spring before it actually arrives. It lets us plunge our hands into moist potting soil, lets us enjoy the process of seeds’ sprouting, then growing into little plants that we can nurture along and begin a relationship with.

Do you need a spring ritual? Try this one. Brew a cup of your favorite herbal tea. Meanwhile, fill a muslin bag with a handful of dried herbs with relaxing scents such as lavender, toss it into the bathtub, and turn on the tap. Inhale the scent, light a candle, and retrieve your tea. Now settle back in the water, sip your tea, and celebrate your kinship with the Earth. Call forth the goddess.

Today, we boil eggs, dye them in gay colors, and hide them for our children to hunt. We have chocolate eggs, marzipan eggs, and new little yellow ­fluff-ball chicks.

Easter Eggs the Herbal Way

The lovely, muted, earthy look of naturally dyed Easter eggs can steal the thunder from the Easter Bunny’s candy-colored, gaudy offerings. They make wonderful additions to centerpieces or may be hung on a bare branch (a traditional German Easter tree). Eggs vary in the way that they take on color: some become attractively mottled. Using some brown as well as white eggs gives you a greater range of finished colors.

Many herbal dye plants, used traditionally to color wool or other natu­ral fibers, can also be used for Easter eggs. For shades of yellow, try dried marigolds, goldenrod, and cosmos. A teaspoonful of turmeric will yield a rich gold. Use woad for blue, madder for pink, coltsfoot for green.

Other dye ingredients are as close as your kitchen. Yellow onion skins yield a vivid rusty orange. Carrot tops give up a clear yellow. Red cabbage leaves, beets, blueberries or blackberries, and grape juice produce pinks and mauves. Try coffee and tea for rich warm browns, and pecan and walnut shells for deeper shades of brown.

Dyeing the eggs

While you prepare your dyestuffs, let eggs come to room temperature to minimize cracking as they simmer.

Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover the number of eggs you’re dyeing and add the dyestuff. A handful of plant material to a pint of water in a small saucepan will color two or three eggs. Simmer for 15 to 30 minutes or until the water is a little darker than the shade you want to dye the eggs.

Carefully add the eggs to the water along with a tablespoon of vinegar. Add water if necessary to cover the eggs completely. Simmer the eggs for 20 minutes or until they have taken on the right color and are hard-boiled. Turn off the heat and let the eggs cool in the dyebath. (This will probably further deepen the color.)

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