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.

Eggs-actly Ostara

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.

Eostre's Eggs and the Legend of the Easter Bunny

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.