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.
A vestige of this old new year is still seen in the way the signs of the zodiac are arranged in modern Western astrology. The first sign of the zodiac is Aries. The sun enters the sign Aries just about the time of the spring equinox, an event that has marked the beginning of the Western zodiacal year for centuries.
The Romans also celebrated the Festival of Janus around the spring equinox. Janus is the two-faced god who looks both to the past and future at the same time. He stands at the portal of time when past and present meet and sees into both. Today Janus appropriately gives his name to the new new year's month, January.
The concept that the spring equinox marked the time of the new year was not confined to Rome. In ancient India the festival of Vaisakhi, celebrated on the new moon closest to the spring equinox, marked the beginning of their new year, as did the festival of Kalacharka in Tibet, which is now fixed on March 15.
Many other celebrations falling on or near the vernal equinox are still known today. Some are celebrated as local folk festivals, and others have all the panache of their original practices.
The not-so-humble egg is inarguably the most pervasive symbol of the world's spring festivals, Ostara included. Within its shell is contained all the archetypical connections humanity has ever held with life, death, and life renewed. This eternal cycle of rebirth at spring is a major theme in the spring holidays of virtually every one of the world's religions, from the most ancient Pagan expressions of spirituality to the most modern sects of Christianity.
How did the egg--particularly the chicken egg--get appointed to this lofty position of symbolizing a universe full of new life? Like many of our modern holiday customs, the egg's place in spring spiritual rites is derived from the way our ancestors observed the natural world around them and honored their deities through these natural occurrences. With modern refrigeration, factory farming, and a fast-moving global marketplace making a variety of food abundant to us year round, it's hard for us to fully comprehend that food was once a seasonal commodity that was impossible to obtain when the natural conditions allowing it to be produced were unavailable.
The eyes of a laying hen and the amount of light she receives are the components responsible for her ability to produce eggs. A hen lays eggs when the retina, the part of the eye that captures light and images, is stimulated for periods of twelve hours or more by sunlight. When that light stimulation ends, so does her laying cycle. Because fire, the only source of light for our ancestors, was not a strong enough light to fool the hen's retina, there were no fresh eggs for a full six months out of every year.
Though the scientific connection between light stimulation and laying cycles would be not known for many centuries, their laying pattern was still reliable. Hens could be counted on to begin producing fresh eggs at the spring equinox and cease producing them around the autumnal equinox, a holiday period associated with dying and death and imagery opposite that of Ostara. As the world bloomed and greened anew each Ostara, the abundance of fresh eggs made them a natural symbol of new life.
The Anglo-Saxons hailed Eostre as the Goddess of Spring, the Greening Earth, and Fertility. Her name means "moving with the waxing sun." Around the time of her festival, on the day when light and dark are equal, the local animals began giving birth or going into their sexually receptive cycles, named "estrus periods" after the goddess. [Legend held that] from the fiercest to the most humble, the woodland animals--who also worshipped and loved Eostre--would play in the warmth of spring light and feast on the new vegetation Eostre provided.
One of Eostre's devotees was a small hare who wished very much to give a gift to his goddess, but he didn't know what he could possibly offer that would be of any value to her. Then one day while foraging, the hare came across a fresh egg, a very prized commodity indeed. The little hare wanted very badly to eat the egg, as it had been a long time since he'd feasted on anything finer than dry grasses. Before he could take a bite of his prize, he realized this egg might make the perfect gift for Eostre. But, he pondered, Eostre could have all the eggs she wanted, anytime she wanted them. She was a goddess, a creator, the embodiment of Life itself. Giving her just any egg would never do. How, he wondered, could he make this egg a fit offering for his goddess?
The little hare took the egg home and pondered how to make it as beautiful and new as Eostre made the world each spring. He began to decorate the egg. He painted it in the hues of Eostre's spring woods and placed upon the shell symbols sacred to Eostre. When he felt he could not make the egg any more beautiful, he took it to Eostre and offered it to her.
Eostre was so pleased by the little hare's sacrifice of his egg to her, and by the manner in which he decorated it for her, that she wanted everyone--especially children, who are themselves symbols of new life--to enjoy these representations of her bounty. Since that Ostara day long ago, the descendents of that hare have taken up the task of delivering decorated eggs to the world's children at spring. They are called Eostre's Bunnies or, more commonly, the Easter Bunny.