This week we celebrate the vernal equinox, the beginning of our spring season. Technically, it occurs the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. Where I live, that moment occurs on March 20, 2016 at 12:20 AM. It is celebrated around the world with rites of spring and a great sense of joy and revival. Life as we know it is briefly in balance just before our planet tips toward the sun. We can sense the hopeful shift within ourselves, slates wiped clean, as we hasten toward rejuvenation, fertile with the anticipation of growth and renewal of ourselves as well as our earth. We say farewell to the cold and dark of winter as crocuses and other plants emerge, and our outlook changes. We literally smell the fertile earth, ripe for planting. The vernal equinox is a scientific principle, yet even our religious holiday of Easter relies on it and the earth’s predictable movement toward the sun to establish the date on which we celebrate.
The date of the religious celebration of Easter is determined by a longstanding formula: it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Say what? Easter is a Christian movable feast, meaning it has no fixed date and moves around, but within certain parameters and confines based, in part, on the very scientific vernal equinox. According to the Venerable Bede, the word “Easter” is derived from Ēastre, the name of the goddess of dawn, spring, and fertility. So Easter is supposedly related to a pagan celebration of rebirth that was celebrated on the vernal equinox in honor of the pagan goddess of fertility, Ēastre, sometimes spelled Ostara or Eostre … and from whence cometh the word Easter.
But how did chicks, bunnies, and colored eggs come to be associated with Easter? These seemingly secular elements are symbols of the hope of new, burgeoning life. Over time and through many cultures and belief systems, decorated eggs were exchanged as symbols of life and abundance. These symbols are virtually universal. Who had them first doesn’t matter. What matters is that every year, spring comes round again, predictably, reliably. Just as we are all desperate to have the cold, snow, and ice of winter be over, spring arrives to save the day and our sanity. We have invested hope and faith in spring. Thankfully, spring (its equinox) is scientifically dependable enough on which to base a Christian holiday. It’s absolutely a time of replenishment, of fertility, of life, and of the restoration of our firmest beliefs.
Spring is a time for planting, for sowing the seeds of the future. We can plant grains and vegetables that nourish; grasses for ornamentation, purification, habitat, and oxygen; and herbs that season the foods that sustain us. We can also grow death with plants that appear beautiful but are, in fact, poisonous, such as foxglove, deadly nightshade, and oleander. Soil does not discriminate, offering equal opportunities to plants, both the vital and the noxious.
As we emerge from the contemplative darkness of winter, what seeds will you cultivate this spring?