The Rites of Spring
The hushed expectancy of the sacred dawn envelops you as you awaken. It is the day of the vernal equinox. The warming rays of the sun have been hidden by the shadow of the Earth for only a little more than twelve hours. You throw on a shawl, go outdoors, and look to the eastern horizon as the sky turns from black to a rich midnight blue, from amber to orange, then finally to a bright azure as the first long legs of the sun step tentatively over the horizon to flood the land with light. The daylight will last exactly twelve hours before the last of the sun's legs steps out of our landscape again, giving way to the night, which will also last exactly twelve hours. You revel in the perfect balance of heaven and earth, knowing that, with this special sunrise, ancient rituals are renewed.
Behind the doors of a locked bedroom a young Witch lights the ribbon-bedecked pastel candles on her altar and murmurs a private welcome to the Goddess of the Sun.
An elderly, robed man--a Druid alone in the woods--stirs blood-red wine three times three before offering a toast to the spirits of spring.
Children in the daycare center of the local Greek Orthodox Church dye hard-boiled eggs a rich red to share as gifts and offerings to celebrate the miracles of life renewed.
An ecumenical study group wends its collective way through the twists and turns of the labyrinth they have created to reenact ancient resurrection rituals and to honor the rebirth of many religions' deities of spring.
A Wiccan coven in England walks out to a secluded meadow bursting with new greenery and taps three times on the back of Mother Earth to gently awaken her from her winter's nap.
The citizens of a small town in Scotland march through the hills and meadow outside their village banging on pots and pans, blowing whistles, ringing bells, and shooting off rifles to celebrate the arrival of spring.
A solitary student of Witchcraft gathers the first flowers of the season to decorate her personal ritual space, and is surprised at how in tune with the earth's energies this simple act makes her feel.
An Irish lad dons the leafy mask of the Green Man and dances on his nimble feet through the streets of his village, where its citizens are celebrating the greening of the earth.
A German woman who has no conscious knowledge that the hare was an animal sacred to the spring goddess of her ancestors still feels compelled to make a rabbit stew for her family's equinox dinner, a tradition practiced by her grandmother.
These ago-old rituals borne within the atavistic impulses of our forbears in order to acknowledge the spring equinox are still with us. They come in many forms and are expressed in both religious and secular cultures the world over. Archaeologists estimate that the two equinoxes and two solstices that quarter our solar year were first celebrated in tribal and clan communities as religious festivals as long as 12,000 years ago.
While the moon's phases often relate to internal or spiritual changes, the turning points of the sun correspond to external or physical life, usually marking a community's all-important hunting, herding, and agricultural seasons. For this reason these are often thought of as "earthy" festivals, even though the element of fire, as a symbol of the sun, predominates the rituals. That the spring equinox--often called Ostara or Eostre in nature spiritualities today--is one of the most primitive and "earthy" in character of these solar festivals is hard to deny. We still see vestiges of this impulse to dance wildly upon the face of the reborn earth and to seek out sexual encounters in the annual ritual known as spring break, when college students shelve their inhibitions and head en masse to the warm beaches of the southern United States to seek the satiation of unmet primal urges.
A majority of our Ostara traditions come from Europe, where this festival is known by a variety of names, including Eostre's Day, vernal equinox, Alban Eiber, Bacchanalia, Lady Day, and Jack in the Green Day. It has also been celebrated the world over under names honoring other deities of spring. In some cases it has served as the point at which the solar year was believed to stop and restart, an appropriate symbolic relationship for a holiday that acknowledges above all that life is never at an end, but is renewed again and again in endless succession.
The most well-known new year's celebration connected to the spring equinox is the Kalends of March, or the old new year's day of ancient Rome, observed around March 25, the approximate date of the equinox 2,000 years ago when the old and new calendars are calculated together. Named for Mars, the Roman God of War, March was the first month of the year, according to the old Roman calendar. Until a new calendar was adopted in the Middle Ages, much of Europe, which had been heavily influenced by the Roman Empire, still acknowledged the month of March as the start of the new year.