The first day of spring (March 20, in 2021, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) is an eagerly anticipated event around the world. Although the Northern and Southern hemispheres celebrate the start of the season at different times of the year, both share in observing the equinox — which comes from the Latin words aequus and nox, meaning "equal" and "night" — with unique customs. Spring represents rebirth and rejuvenation, and many of the celebrations reflect this: Homes are cleaned, blossoms are admired, and, in some cases, the dark winter months are sent off in dramatic, flaming fashion. Here are some of the most interesting winter-into-spring rituals and traditions from around the world.
The tail end of winter isn't exactly renowned for bountiful harvests — unless, perhaps, the "crop" is maple syrup. In the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the weeks before and during early spring are known as sugaring season, when syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. The season typically starts around mid-February and lasts through early April; during this time, syrup is made, served, and sold at buildings in the woods known as sugar shacks. Locals and tourists alike flock to these cozy shacks, eager to pour warm maple syrup on fresh, powdery snow to make a deliciously sweet treat. In New England, the taffy-like candy is known as sugar on snow, while French-speaking Canada calls it tire sur la neige (“pull on the snow”).
Making (or eating) sugar on snow is a simple and satisfying way to mark the changing of the seasons, but making the amber liquid is a much longer labor of love. It begins in the fall, when maple trees store starches in their trunks. As early spring temperatures begin to rise, the starches convert to sugars, and the above-freezing days and below-freezing nights create the pressure needed for the sweet liquid, known as sap, to flow from holes drilled in the tree’s trunk. The extracted sap is then boiled to reduce it to its familiar concentrated, syrupy texture. Not every tree is sugaring season material, though — it needs to be about 40 years old to be big enough to tap.
One of the best things about spring is all the new flowers it brings. Without a doubt, some of the most breathtaking blooms can be seen on cherry trees. Before the trees produce fruit, their elegant limbs erupt in pillows of white and pastel-pink flowers. Japan’s cherry blossoms — known as sakura — are especially notable, producing a spring spectacle known around the world. The blooming season is dependent on weather but generally happens for about two weeks in April, when it is celebrated with festivals that draw millions of spectators every year.
The springtime cherry blossoms hold special significance in Japan, where people host picnic parties under the trees as part of a centuries-old tradition called hanami — meaning, literally, “flower viewing.” The custom originated during the Nara period and was popularized as an aristocratic gathering under Emperor Saga in the ninth century, complete with sake, poetry, and other refined activities. Today’s hanami celebrations are decidedly less formal, but no less festive: They're enjoyed by people of all backgrounds, and often go well into the night with food, drinking, and dancing. Similar cherry blossom festivals take place in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
If spring’s longer days and warmer breezes have you wanting to throw open the windows and wipe every corner of your house clean, you’re not alone. The age-old tradition of spring cleaning isn’t just a feel-good practice — it actually has roots in some cultural customs, and was even once a necessity because of how homes were kept warm in the colder months.
During the 1800s, people primarily heated their homes with wood- or coal-burning fireplaces and used kerosene lamps for light in the long winter months. This often led to traces of soot and grime on just about every surface in the house, requiring a deep cleaning come spring, when people would take everything outside to literally shake off the dust. Modern conveniences have made these original reasons irrelevant, but the tradition of spring cleaning persists anyway.
In some places, the ritual also has cultural or religious significance. In Iran, for example, the practice has its own name: It’s called khane tekani (or "shaking the house"), and it's tied to the Iranian new year, Nowruz, which coincides with the spring equinox.
Groundhog Day occurs a full month and a half before the official first day of spring, but it has become an familiar marker in the slow transition of the seasons for people in the U.S. and Canada. Each year on February 2, a groundhog is coaxed out of its underground burrow to provide a weather forecast for the coming weeks. If it sees its shadow, the rodent is scared back into its hole for six more weeks of winter. No shadow means warmer spring weather will arrive earlier than expected.
The decidedly unscientific ritual has been taking place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1887, but its origins date back to the fourth century Christian holiday Candlemas. During Candlemas, clergy members would distribute candles representing how long and cold the winter would be. German Protestants later put their own spin on this by introducing a hedgehog as their seasonal prognosticator, and when German settlers arrived in America, they continued the tradition using a groundhog. Now, the event is not only a major local affair, but also a global news story every February.
Egg Painting, Cooking, and Eating
Eggs are ubiquitous in spring, thanks in large part to their association with Easter and resurrection in the Christian faith. But their significance isn't limited to just one religion or culture: Eggs have symbolized new life and reproduction throughout most of history, dating back to Pagan sun-worshipping rituals, and are important parts of many spring traditions to this day.
In Bosnia, residents of Zenica celebrate with Cimburijada (the Festival of Scrambled Eggs), a tradition that honors the renewal of life that comes with the season. At dawn on the first day of spring, locals gather to make and share giant dishes of scrambled eggs, typically prepared in the open air using hundreds of eggs, butter, and other secret ingredients.
In Iran, during Nowruz, decorated eggs represent fertility for one's family and are considered among the most important items on the ceremonial haftseen table. And no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere, one of the most well-known spring equinox traditions involves standing an egg on its end. A long-running legend purports that this feat can only be achieved on the first day of spring, when the gravitational alignment between the sun and Earth changes. Alasr, it's just a myth.
Fire is used as a comforting (and sometimes necessary) heat and light source throughout the winter. So what better way is there to send off the cold months than with raging hot flames? Many cultures around the world incorporate effigies and bonfires into their spring celebrations, upholding old rituals that are as lively and fun as they are dramatic.
In Poland and some other Slavic countries, many people commemorate the arrival of spring with aSlavic tradition known as the Drowning of Marzanna (the Slavic goddess of winter). On the first day of spring, Marzanna’s likeness, made of straw and dressed in traditional local clothing, is set on fire and tossed into the water in an attempt to defeat winter’s icy last gasp and ensure a good harvest in the season to come. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the sacrificial effigy is a life-sized, cotton-stuffed snowman, the Böögg, who is filled with fireworks and lit on fire. The faster the Böögg burns, the warmer the upcoming spring and summer will be.
This ancient Hindu celebration, also known as the “festival of spring” or the “festival of colors,” has become one of the most popular and well-known equinox experiences in India and beyond. What started out as a religious holiday has turned into a larger cultural celebration of the arrival of spring, the end of winter, and the triumph of good over evil.
Holi is typically held every March and is most widely known for its joyous explosions of colorful powder, which revelers use to douse each other in vibrant hues. Holi celebrations also include lively public gatherings and a ceremonial bonfire on the night known as Holika Dahan, which takes place the day before the main event.