Since the dawn of time, spring has ushered in a time of renewal and rebirth. With more hours of sunshine and flowers in bloom, it stands to reason that the ancient Romans celebrated the days around the vernal equinox as the beginning of the new year. Taking its name from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), the vernal equinox heralds one of two moments of the year—along with the fall equinox—when both day and night are equally long. While many religions have integrated the ancient rites of spring into festivals, traditions, and holy days, humankind’s earliest celebrations of spring were more about living in communion with nature’s cycles. The egg and rabbit may be perennial symbols of springtime, but we herbalists can’t help but be a little bit obsessed with plants, flowers, and the beginning of the growing season.
Easter, perhaps one of the most common springtime celebrations, falls on the Sunday following the full moon on or just after the vernal equinox. What few people realize is that the holiday took its name from the ancient Anglo-Saxon festival of Eostre, a celebration of fertility and the return of the sunshine named for Ostara, the moon goddess of dawn and spring. Bedecked in tree buds and flowers, Ostara represented a season of hope. Likewise, the Druids used the vernal equinox to honor the Welsh goddess of fertility, Blodeuwedd, the first “flower woman,” who was said to be created by magicians out of nine flowers—broom, meadowsweet, oak, chestnut, primrose, cockle, nettle, bean and hawthorn—and said to possess their powers.
Other parts of the world celebrate springtime with equally colorful plant veneration. In fact, some very old celebrations endure to this day. Persia’s Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz originated in the 5th century B.C. and celebrates the beginning of the growing season with decorated eggs and plant seedlings. The Chinese festival of Qingming, or “Pure Brightness,” occurs in early April and honors the changing of the seasons with offerings of flowers, food, incense and money to one’s ancestors’ graves. Fêted for approximately 2500 years, Qingming continues to be a highly anticipated annual event. The Japanese custom of hanami, or “flower viewing,” encourages the appreciation of fleeting spring blossoms like cherry and plum. Having started 1000 years ago by aristocrats, the Hanami Festival is now in fashion with people from all walks of life, who use it to celebrate the arts, ancient tea rituals, and the simple joy of being outside. Regardless of which cultural lens you look through, the return of the light and the beginning of the growing season can’t help but bring in waves of optimism and hope.
If history and tradition teach us anything about the vernal equinox, it is that this annual astrological event is the perfect time for welcoming change. Some people systematically clean their homes every spring, some nurture seedlings for their gardens, and others engage in clean-eating rituals. Creating a vision board can help put positive intentions in motion. This year, the equinox falls on March 20th. How will you be celebrating?