The days are getting longer, and the nights shorter. Dawn breaks earlier each day while frosts creep over the morning grass and frigid mists roll in from the hills: it might not feel that way yet, but spring is finally on its way in the northern hemisphere. Seasonal fatigue from a long winter (made worse with a national lockdown and consistently poor weather) can leave us feeling as though it might never end. This feeling of an eternal winter is one that has united civilisations and cultures across history, as have the celebrations to mark when this season has finally come to an end.
From the first buds appearing, to the fall of the blossom from trees; the celebration of the new season and the end of the old is something that can be traced through the millennia. So what is it about spring that has roused excitement throughout the ages?
Food, fertility, and fulfilment
It’s only in recent history that the harnessing of gas and electricity has allowed us to continue to work past the setting of the sun. Before artificial lighting, we relied on daylight to get even the simplest of daily chores done. With shorter days and longer nights, winter not only meant colder weather that limited agriculture, but the restriction of how many hours of the day were workable. This meant less time to farm and less sunlight for crops. With nature awakening from a long, cold, and dark hibernation, the arrival of spring promises a renewed abundance.
So with such promise of life and reinvigoration, it’s no surprise that spring rituals are some of the most continued traditions throughout history. From eggs and lambs to baby bunnies: these icons that are now synonymous with the spring months have their roots in history that reach back much further than you might think. Here are just a few of the historic traditions of spring whose practices can still be found today.
Lupercalia and the Ides of March
Before Christian rule outlawed pagan practices, roman spring festivities such as Lupercalia and the feast of Anna Perenna were celebrations of fertility, the start of a new year, and the abundance of nature.
Celebrated traditionally on the 15th day of February, Lupercalia is believed to be the origins of valentine's day, however, it was a far sight from the day of romance and chocolates that we know today. Observed with ritualistic sacrifice, nudity, and public whipping, Lupercalia’s sexually charged rituals and feasts were thought to ward off bad omens and ensure fertility for the year ahead.
More commonly known these days as the day of Caesar's assassination (you have Shakespeare to thank for that) the ides of March wasn’t a festival day but a way of marking the date as the 15th day of March. The celebration of Anna Perenna, however, was a celebration that just so happened to fall on this date. Considered the deity of the circular year (we still use her name to reference the year today: per annum), the feast of Anna Perenna was a celebration of the cycle of life, renewal, and the connection of the past to the present that was marked by a night of picnicking, dancing, drinking and merrymaking.
Imbolc and Beltane
The Celtic traditions and rituals of Imbolc are still widely celebrated across the British Isles today. While many associate the common practices of spring and rebirth with Christian practices for Easter (pancake day and Shrove Tuesday, hot cross buns with the rebirth of Christ), many practices across the islands can be traced back to prehistory. Many of these rituals live on today and are still widely celebrated as tradition.
Starting early in the year, Imbolc is the Gaelic celebration of new growth. Set between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Imbolc traditionally is celebrated with feasting, merriment, and making Brigid’s crosses. Linked with Brigid, the Gaelic goddess of fertility and birth (believed to be the origin of the Christian Saint Brigid), Imbolc is thought to be traceable back to the neolithic era with ancient structures and tombs in Ireland aligning with the sun on equinoxes much like Stonehenge.
Beltane, another Gaelic tradition, is traditionally celebrated midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Signifying the coming of summer and the driving out of cattle, Beltane is traditionally observed with the creation of bonfires, decoration of the home with flowers, and feasting. The bonfires were believed to be symbolic of the protection of cattle and crop and to appease the faerie folk who were believed to be particularly active around the spring and autumn equinox (Samhain).
While both Beltane and Imbolc are still celebrated by practising pagans worldwide, elements of these celebrations can still be seen today throughout Europe especially in the celebration of May Day. Each country has its own traditions but celebrations generally centre around the idea of dancing, merriment, and feasting. The erection of the maypole and the traditional dancing associated with it may feel more like a folk tradition to us, but they hark back to a celebration of warmer months, the arrival of summer, and the end of spring.
Forget Midsummer: Spring is the season of love.
Whilst ritualistic sacrifice and overtly sexual rituals may be the last thing that we think about when we think of spring celebration, it’s easy to see how the arrival of spring and the new life it brings with it is still heavily associated with rituals of fertility and lovemaking today. Whether it’s taking the kids to the local farm for lambing season, or painting eggs for Easter; however you decide to welcome the spring in, there's a strong possibility that your celebration of the year to come links you to a history spanning centuries.