Why the vernal equinox is worth remembering

The spring equinox has lost its significance for many, but as recently as the 1840s, it was an exciting event, particularly for the youth and young lovers throughout Central Europe.

An equinox represents a date on which day and night are roughly the same length. In the northern hemisphere, the spring, or vernal equinox falling around March 21 heralds the time when the sun will begin to overpower the dark. The days continue getting longer than the nights until we reach the longest day, the summer solstice, around June 21. After this, the days gradually shorten. The autumnal equinox, falling around Sept. 21, signals when the nights begin to get longer than the days, leading up to the longest night on the winter solstice, around Dec. 21. The winter solstice is a time of celebration because now the light will return again.

In this era of artificial light, following the amount of light in the sky may not seem important. But it’s worth remembering why it was once so revered.

The vernal equinox has been celebrated by cultures around the world, from an ancient Chinese custom of balancing eggs to the Mayan celebration that exists today at Chichén Itzá, in which the afternoon sun lights up a temple to reveal what appears to be a shadowy dance of an immense carved stone serpent. Many European traditions involved a fire festival and some kind of sacrifice to the gods. Although there is speculation that there may have been a human sacrifice in our deep past, most of the practices described by Sir James Frazer in his early 20th-century book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion involve an effigy, usually made of straw.

One of the more intriguing ceremonies involving a mock court occurred in the Eifel Mountains in Germany. A straw man would be condemned to death for having “committed” all the thefts in the village in the previous year and would then be shot, paraded through town and finally burned “to death.” In Luxemburg, a ceremony involved surrounding a tree with firewood and straw and attaching a straw figure dressed in old clothing stuffed with gunpowder to the top of the tree. The tree and figure would be set on fire at night, with youths dancing around the inferno. In Switzerland, on “Spark Sunday,” the first Sunday in Lent, straw and brambles would be tied to old wheels and sent “rolling and blazing down the hill[s],” Frazer writes.

These festivals were fertility rites meant to bless the fields for an abundant yield and to rid the fields and orchards of mice or pestilence that might harm the crops. In many of these celebrations, the most recently married (presumably the most fertile) people would light the fires and carry burning torches through the apple orchards. The bigger the blaze and the more revelry around the fire, the more fertile and bountiful the crops would be. Or so legend would have it.

Ashes from these fires would be collected and brought home to bless and protect the fields, sprinkled in the hens’ nests to ensure plenty of eggs or mixed with the seeds during planting. The latter ritual had a practical application, as the ashes would provide nutrients for the soil. In some French provinces, herds of livestock would be driven through the smoke or embers to protect the flocks from illness.

Many of these traditions are no longer relevant, but what do people do these days to celebrate the equinox? Well, the Easter egg hunt is popular here in Canada — and since the egg has long been a symbol of life, this custom may well descend from earlier fertility rites. While most of us no longer pay homage to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest, food security is a huge issue for many. And even though we are wired into the rapidly changing technology of the 21st century, a part of us still moves to the rhythm of the seasons, cycles of light and dark and universal forces beyond our understanding.

Who knows what will happen 2 000 years from now? But in the meantime, if you have the chance, enjoying a bonfire and some chocolate eggs with a lusty partner could just set you up for a bumper crop of something.

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