Now Nature hangs her mantle green
On every blooming tree,
And spreads her sheets o'daisies white
Out o'er the grassy lea.
- Robert Burns
Such a short, simple word and yet it ignites a warmth and excitement in people that is hard to rival. With spring comes a gentle, warm breeze. The sun peeks out from behind the clouds, yawning awake after months of quiet contemplation. Flowers blanket the ground, hiding the hard winter earth below.
Growing up in Australia, it was always about the smell for me. The biting sweetness of a jonquil flower. The sharp zesty-ness of the tiny white gardenia. The moment I caught a whiff of those in the air, I knew it was time.
I can honestly smell it right now. It’s making my mouth water. I crave spring. That knowledge that the weather is about to clear. I can leave my jacket at home. I can sit in the gently warming sun for hours and not worry about the burn that summer brings.
Living in Scotland is no different, except I am exchanging bottlebrushes for cherry blossoms, spring in March instead of September, and trips to the Scottish Highlands instead of the Blue Mountains.
I cannot wait.
Call me greedy, but I want spring to last as long as possible, which is why I often go by the meteorological seasons over the astronomical. The meteorological season would tell you that, in the Northern Hemisphere, spring begins on the 1st of March. But the astronomical one aligns with the vernal equinox, which is the 20th of March.
So, what exactly is an equinox? It’s when the sun is positioned directly above the Earth’s equator (happening twice yearly on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes). For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, as the sun crosses the equator from south to north, it brings with it warmer weather and longer days.
The word ‘equinox’ comes from the Latin (I’ve always wanted to say that) for ‘equal’ and ‘night’. During an equinox, day and night are all but equal.
In my opinion, spring is better than the New Year. New Year, New You, and all that. Well, what about spring? New beginnings and transformations. The very earth around us comes back to life, people step into the world with more excitement and fervour than they’ve felt in months, and it seems like anything is possible.
Celebrating spring isn’t a recent fad. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years and in more ways than you can imagine. Want to explore some of those fun stories? Read on.
Did you know the Shang Dynasty, the family that ruled China from 1600 to 1046 BC, can pinpoint their ascension to the seat of power thanks to the spring equinox, a little bird, and a random egg?
The legend goes that on the spring equinox, a lady named Chien-Ti came into possession of an egg. How she came to own it is cause for debate (I like the idea of it being dropped into her mouth by the bird, so let’s go with that), but it wasn’t just any egg. It was sent from heaven and after consuming it, Chien-Ti pulled a Virgin Mary and had a miraculous virgin birth. The blessed child, Hsieh, eventually founded the Shang family’s power.
Ah, the Romans. We’ve studied their stories – both fact and myth – across generations and continents. Why? Simply put, no-one does it quite like the Romans.
Back in the day, the spring equinox was a day to celebrate the goddess Cybele. She had a somewhat loud and chaotic energy about her, being driven around in a lion-drawn chariot, and having a supposed love affair with her son (or grandson). And when he tried to ditch her and marry a mortal, she tormented the boy until he castrated himself and died.
See what I mean? Romans, man.
But this is what the Cybele celebration was all about, this less-than-ideal relationship that turned to death. The spring equinox was the final day of celebrations. Supposedly, people would get a bit over-excited and self-mutilation was not uncommon. We’re glad it’s an old tradition.
Perhaps my favourite one comes from 12th-century Judaism, which associated something slightly darker with the equinoxes. Supposedly, they believed that Spring was when Moses turned the Nile River’s water to blood, along with every other drop of water available throughout the country. So, they believed that all the water on the planet was poisoned during the equinoxes and abstained from drinking it.
We guess a lot of alcohol was consumed on these days.
There’s something about Mayan architecture that I’ve always loved. From Tikal National Park in Guatemala to the El Castillo pyramid in Mexico, I cannot wait to explore these amazing regions. With history and culture so incredibly rich, not to mention the wildness of their landscape, you just know there are endless stories and legends hidden in the depths of their past.
Take El Castillo, for example. This striking volcanic-looking structure was built with a specific purpose in mind. The pyramid is astronomically aligned so that something special happens during the equinoxes. Each side of the pyramid has a set of steps that run from the base to the tip. On the equinoxes, the steps cast shadows along the edge, from top to bottom, giving the illusion of a snake slithering down the pyramid. Why? The El Castillo temple was built to honour the god Kukulkan, a feathered serpent.
I hope the architect got a raise.
Something a little closer to home now. Many have heard of Stonehenge. There’s endless debate as to the how and why of this incredible structure. And, really, it doesn’t matter what you believe. Some believe the Romans had a hand in creating it. Makes sense, right? Others insist aliens were involved. Definitely plausible, if you ask me. My favourite is that the wizard Merlin (who was totally real, don’t tell me otherwise) built Stonehenge. Likely so he and King Arthur could show off their power and status, but hey, I’m all for it.
But Stonehenge is more than its myths. It also serves an actual function, as it allowed predictions of eclipses, solstices, equinoxes, and other woo-woo celestial events.
On the vibrant vernal equinox, druids and pagans would gather at Stonehenge to celebrate new beginnings and fertility by worshipping the Saxon goddess Eostre. You might fancy visiting yourself on the 20th of March for a little ritual of your own. If not, the site is opened up on the summer and winter solstices for special celebrations.
Journey to the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal in Ireland, and you’ll find an impressive stone site called Aileach Grianán. The main structure is an enormous stone ring fort, believed to have been built around the sixth or seventh century AD.
Something quite incredible happens on both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. The rising sun aligns with the monument, and a beam of light shoots through the two entrances, splitting the structure in two.
Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day, or to welcome spring.
Now you’ve got some idea of what the vernal equinox has meant to people over the centuries. What’s important is what it means to you. Perhaps it means nothing, and the 20th of March is just another day. But I don’t think so, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog, am I right?
I’m not a religious person. I wouldn’t even say I’m a superstitious person, per say. However, there are some moments in life that are undeniably powerful and crossing over into spring is one of those for me.
Perhaps travelling to Egypt and abstaining from water is a bit much for you. Maybe waking up at 4am and climbing to a hill-top fort isn’t for you, either. Or maybe it is. Here are just a few ideas of things you can do to welcome spring:
While Stonehenge doesn’t hold a specific celebration for the vernal equinox, there is nothing stopping you from heading out there yourself on the 20th of March and partaking in your own spring-welcoming ritual.
It’s a popular place, and there’s sure to be crowds, so you could always consider a different stone circle. There are quite a few in the UK. The Avebury stone circles, for instance, are an immensely impressive site. Best part? There's a Rabbie’s tour that can take you to both Stonehenge and Avebury on the same day. So... vernal equinox plans sorted?
I think one reason so many people love holidays and special calendar dates is because it gives them an excuse to see their loved ones. Life can get so busy and it’s easy to let life slip by you. I can go for months at a time without seeing some of my friends. Even years, sometimes.
But I know many of my friends would love a vernal equinox gathering, even the ones who haven’t a single superstitious bone in their body. Why? It’s an excuse to get together. To eat, drink, laugh, and talk about our goals for the coming year. You could even cook dishes made from seasonable vegetables such as leeks and asparagus, and dress in the colours of spring.
Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Open up your windows. Light some candles. Cleanse objects of significance. Get rid of unwanted items. For those who believe in the woo, you’ll know that items hold onto memories much like we do. When your mind is heavy, you need a night in with your friends to talk about all that’s bothering you to clear the pipes. When your body feels gross from too much junk food, you need to cleanse your insides with a fresh meal.
Objects are quite similar. If you carry precious stones, now is the time to give them a cleanse. Look at your jewellery. Is there a stone there? You might consider running it under some water or putting it under the moonlight. Just saying.
You could even create a little altar in your home. Something as simple as a side table in a corner of your home where you put objects of importance to you. Maybe that’s a ring that belonged to your grandmother. Your favourite book. A picture of your loved ones. It really is as simple as that.
You might try your hand at more traditional practices. Candle rituals, for one. Now, again, I wouldn’t say I’m a true believer. But what I like about these practices is that they force me to be mindful about a topic that’s important to me. To really think about what I want or need or hope for. I take a moment to knock away all that noise that my mind and the world brings and take a moment to focus.
Fire has been used in rituals for thousands of years. So, why not find a quiet spot, light a candle, and take a few moments to yourself?
We won’t recommend any specific rituals, as everyone is different. There are plenty of websites and books out there which can recommend rituals that might work for you.
Personally, I’m dying to do this myself. I’d love nothing more than to wake up before dawn and journey up to Grianán of Aileach. Even without the spring aspect, it's a peculiar hilltop fort dating back to 1700 BC and was built by invaders of Ireland who built an array of these forts on top of strategic hills.
If you do go for sunrise on the 20th of March, the beam of light isn’t the only reward you’ll get. Take a flask of tea and a few snacks. Then you’ll have the most incredible breakfast of your life as you gaze out over the Irish landscape and spot the glistening waters of the Emerald Isle.
Rabbie’s Tours can even take you there ourselves, on two of our tours departing from Belfast. The 4-day Donegal & the Wild Atlantic Way tour and the 6-day The Wild Coasts of the North tour. Sadly, we won’t be able to make it there for sunrise. However, it makes for a great visit no matter the time of year or day.
These are just a few little ideas. Perhaps you’ll simply say a few words in the morning or write a list of new challenges for yourself. Whatever you decide, there’s no denying that spring is a powerful and important time for the world. A time when the world comes alive, and we small humans embrace new beginnings.
Bronwyn lives and breathes words. Before coming to work at Rabbie's, she spent 7 years in publishing and is a published author of YA fantasy books. Born and raised in Sydney, she was drawn to Scotland and affectionately calls it her 'soul home'. An avid traveller herself, Bronwyn's favourite places (so far) are Mongolia, Iceland, Morocco, and Scotland (of course). When she's not writing, she can be found exploring the Scottish Highlands with her camera, on the lookout for coos and men in kilts.