While the scientific community is busy gathering further evidence to support the theory that spring equinox has been arriving earlier than usual, people around the northern hemisphere are doing what they have been doing for centuries: Celebrating the arrival of life and leaving behind increasingly bitter winters. Observed generally between March 19th and 22nd, spring equinox festivities may be marked by different rituals, but echo the common yearning for life to begin all over again.
Nauruz, or the Persian New Year is among the most widely celebrated spring festivals in this part of the world. Celebrated in countries like Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, India, Albania and by diaspora communities around the world, International Nauruz Day was recognized by the United Nations in 2010. Literally meaning new-day, Nauruz festivities extend for 13 days and is marked by elaborate dining, new clothes, spring cleaning, visiting of relatives and friends and the renewal of bonds.
An ancient festival that is celebrated across Central Asia and other parts of the world, the rituals and festivities marking Nauruz varies with each country: In Iraq there are processions of people carrying burning torches in the spring night; in Kazakhstan kok-boru is played by horse riders who grab a goat carcass and try to drop it in their opponent’s goal; people gather to watch camel fights in Afghanistan; in Turkey, men jump over fires; and in Iran families go on picnics on the 13th day of Nauruz to throw away sprouts into flowing water, an act that symbolizes the “letting go” of any misfortune the new year may bring.
However, the Nauruz feast, which is set out on the haftseen table is a common feature in most countries celebrating the Persian new year. The spread includes seven items (the number is considered lucky) that symbolize the arrival of spring and a time of renewal. The most common items included are apples for beauty, garlic for health, vinegar for patience, sweet pudding or painted eggs for fertility, sprouts for rebirth, hyacinth for spring and coins for prosperity. Most spring equinox festivals around the world include various motifs of the Sun, fresh food and produce, the reiteration of life and hearty farewells to winter.
Every year at the time of spring equinox, thousands of people flock to the Pyramids of the Sun in Teotihuacán, an ancient pre-Aztec city in Mexico. It is believed that the site, basking in the glow of the first spring sunlight, has a special energy and people gather there dressed in white to absorb it. After climbing the steep steps carved onto the rock face to reach the flat top, many lie down under the open sky to absorb the special sunlight. The ancient ruins turn into a carnival of sorts, with traditional dancers in flamboyant costumes dancing to rhythmic drumbeats; with colorful hot air balloons drifting slowly across the skies; and vendors selling a variety of food, drinks and jewelry among other things.
An ancient pagan ritual still marks how Poland celebrates the arrival of spring: Marzanna, also known as Morena or Death, is an effigy made out of straw or rags. People gather outside to first burn and then “drown” Marzanna in a river or lake. The effigy represents all the negative qualities of winter and it is burnt in order to call for spring to arrive. According to a superstition, people completely turn their back on the drowned effigy to complete their farewell to winter.
The Balinese new year Nyepi, which coincides with the spring equinox, is a celebration that is starkly different from Western new year festivities – it is marked by the observance of silence. Three days before the new year, a colorful procession of effigies of various gods is taken to the river, where they are believed to be bathed by God Baruna before being taken back to the temples. Named Melasti, it is a day for the soul to cleanse itself and become closer to God according to Balinese beliefs. On the day before Nyepi, known as Tawur Kesanga, all villages conduct exorcism ceremonies characterized by the Ogoh-ogoh, an effigy of the demon made out of bamboo.
The effigy is burnt during the course of the night, an act that symbolizes the driving out of devils and is accompanied by rioting and chanting of magical curses. When Nyepi, seen as a day to maintain the balance of nature, dawns the next morning, there is strict observance of absolute silence and stillness. The new year in Bali is a day for self-introspection and self control.
In India, the spring festival Holi is literally a celebration of colors and open revelry. The festival has multiple roots in the vast Indian mythology, with every region celebrating it according to various legends. However, the most common thread is the triumph of good over evil, the arrival of spring time and the expression of love. Among the most celebrated myths are that of Holika and Radha-Krishna.
In the former, people light bonfires on the day of Holi to symbolize the burning of Holika, the sister of demon-king Hiranyakashyap. The evil sister burnt to death, when she and her brother tried to kill Prahlad (the king’s son who was an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu). In the other story, the dark-skinned Lord Krishna is said to have gotten jealous over the fair complexion of his lover, Radha. Playfully, Krishna is believed to have applied color onto Radha’s face and this tradition of people throwing color on each other marks the celebration of Holi around the country.
In other Eastern cultures like Japan and Singapore , spring festivals are marked by people endeavoring to pay respects to their ancestors by cleaning their tombs or graves and offering incense and flowers. Most spring equinox festivals around the world are characterized by the looking forward into future and looking inward into oneself.
By Aruna Iyer