Spring is universally greeted with mayhem (April Fool’s pranks), daredevilry (leaping over fire) and merriment (Maypole dancing, May baskets). Great bonfires burn the past and hail the warmth and light ahead. A Queen of the May is crowned. Even religious holidays go for mirth: Hindus throw blood-red dye on passersby, destroying inhibitions to create an unabashedly joyful celebration bidding good riddance to winter’s death.
This change of seasons is a changing of our guard, the rising of the sap, transition to the bright, warm triumph of hope over the cold, dark hold of fear. We made it through the freeze and barren: Cheers to us! We survived! Special foods are served to make the moment sweeter, easier to savor. They are the way we literally take in all this happiness.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the birth of a new Christian Ireland, rid of its Pagan past, and nothing symbolizes rebirth better than springtime when the Earth comes back to life. Thus all the wearing of the green. The Irish shamrock, an early riser, was revered as the signal of liberation from winter’s grip, and thanks to St. Patrick’s Christian conversion, its three leaves came to represent the holy Christian trinity that could liberate the soul from the grip of damnation. But the shamrock isn’t edible, so cabbage became the table centerpiece of the holiday and not just because it’s green. As the first “heads up” of the growing season, its groundbreaking was a sure sign of the ideal moment to plant potatoes. St. Patrick’s Day gave people a break from the constraints of Lent to celebrate this good news. It let them serve bacon with that cabbage, and pounds of fresh butter with the soda bread and make merry with drink—which anyone can still do every March 17 at any Irish pub.
Persians/Iranians celebrate their New Year, Nowruz, on the spring solstice, March 21 on our calendar, and traditionally serve seven symbolic dishes that all begin with the letter S. Chief among them is sabzeh (sprouts of wheat or lentils), to signify rebirth. In addition to being presented plain, sprouts appear cooked into a sweet, creamy and complex pudding called samanu. The accompanying dishes are seeb (apple), for health and beauty; seer (garlic), for medicine; serkeh (vinegar), for patience and its corollary, age; somaq (sumac berries), which stand for the color of sunrise, signifying the brightness of good conquering the darkness of evil; and senjed (the fruit of the lotus tree), whose heady fragrance and fruit are like spring fever that makes people fall in love.
Hindus in India and Nepal celebrate Holi on the first spring full moon with rowdy, raucous abandon. Whether it’s thought of as the festival of spring, the festival of colors or the festival of love, it’s always the time to let loose, be silly and remember ancient stories of how good has always conquered evil, light has won over darkness the way spring cancels winter. On the eve, old clothes and textiles are burned under that full moon in huge bonfires thought to symbolize burning away the past and destroying evil. New clothes are given as gifts in the morning. But it can be dangerous to wear them, for out on the streets people in imitation of the impish god Krishna throw blood-red dye randomly on any person or animal passing by. Water balloons are dropped, water guns shot from windows, drenching people not only because all social norms are off for the moment, but because the water is thought to wash away stains of the past. The drink of the day is milk: symbol of life, fertility and purity. To accompany it, extra fancy dhal pancakes are deliberately shaped round because life is round and sweet cakes are the foods of the day.
The M’gillah says Jews created a feasting, merrymaking holiday to celebrate Queen Esther’s triumph over the ancient Persian vizier Haman, who plotted to kill them. That’s Purim, which greets spring early with a besotted glee intended to commemorate liberation from death and danger. Unlike the more solemn Seder feast, which opens the Passover season, Purim is a moment for mischief, masquerade and mixing everything up. Its hallmark is the buttery, triangular, jam-filled pastry called Hamantaschen. Since that literally means “Haman’s pouch,” some say the pastry symbolizes the money Haman offered King Ahasuerus for permission to destroy the Jews. Others think it resembles the ancient Babylonian dice Haman cast to determine the day for killing. Others insist the triangular pastry re-creates Haman’s tri-cornered hat. Everybody agrees that to enjoy Hamantaschen is to devour a scheming villain and that is very merry indeed.
Among Christians, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is always celebrated on the first full moon after the March equinox, which is to say during the resurrection of the Earth from the dead of winter. The name of this celebration, “Easter,” probably came from the name of a pre-Christian goddess in England, Eostre, who was celebrated at the beginning of spring for bringing life back. Not surprisingly, the universal symbol of this rebirth holiday is the egg, source of new life. Children run wild in egg rolling and egg hunts. The custom of coloring Easter eggs comes from early Mesopotamian Christians who stained them red to commemorate the blood of Christ, shed at the crucifixion leading to his eternal life. We fill Easter baskets with brightly colored eggs and an Easter bunny because rabbits are so quick to reproduce—the glory of fertility, of birth, insuring life goes on. Even chocolate is molded into the shapes of eggs and rabbits for this holiday.
Europeans make special egg-dough breads and egg-shaped cakes, meaning round or ringlike, some with hard cooked eggs actually nestled whole on top or inside them. In this instance the roundness of the egg symbolizes life itself: It goes on without beginning or end, just around and round. Ukrainians dye raw eggs (usually red for life blood) and painstakingly draw symbols on the shell—like ribbons for eternity and triangles for the trinity of birth, life and death—to create exquisite Pysanky as protection from fire and evil.
The egg is also part of the Hebrew spring celebration: the Seder. The weeklong Passover holiday this dinner initiates represents a historic moment when the Hebrew people were liberated from the hardships and evils of captivity and gave birth to new life in freedom. It is said the god of death and destruction passed over them so they could come out of the darkness of slavery and fear—metaphorically from winter’s bondage into spring’s blessings. This pivot gets relived every year at the special Seder dinner timed to the spring moon. A hardboiled egg in the center of the table is meant to be a reminder of life, of its wholeness and richness and endlessness. It is fitting that far-flung family should come together around it. Parsley and other spring greens are on the Seder table as well, signs of life renewing itself the way the Hebrew people did and the family will.
A lamb shank bone has an honored place on the Seder table. It carries many meanings: how human sacrifice stopped with Abraham when he killed a ram instead of his son Isaac, how lambs were traditionally sacrificed to please God, how lambs are thought to be innocent creatures free of evil, how sheep live in flocks or community. Also, because lambs tend to be born in spring, their frolicking is a sure sign of its joy. There is more.
Lamb is on the Christian Easter table, where it is often referred to as the Paschal or Pascal lamb. Those spring words Paschal and Pascal attached to Easter actually derive from the Hebrew word Pesach, which means to pass over. Pesach is the Hebrew word for the spring holiday of resurrection that starts with the Seder. The Torah says lamb was sacrificed and offered to God on the night of the Exodus from Egypt, its blood sprinkled on the door-posts of Israelite dwellings as a sign to God to spare those homes. This is the main reason that lamb shank is on the Seder table. Christians took this idea of the lamb sacrificed so God could redeem the chosen and attached it to Christ at the crucifixion. He became metaphorically the sacrificial lamb whose blood marks multitudes for salvation. He was Agnus Dei. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John the Baptist says. Pascal lamb is a reminder of this redemption.
May, the name of the month when spring gets into full swing, comes from Maios (Latin Maius), from the goddess Maia, a Greek and Roman goddess of fertility. The first day of Maios celebrates the final victory of summer against winter as the victory of life against death. Germanic countries have Walpurgis Night on April 30 and Gaelic culture has Beltane, which means lucky fire. Fires were lit to bless the livestock as it was moved to summer grazing ground and often men leapt over them for good luck with the harvest and love. Finland’s Vappen, or Walpurgis Night, is one of its four biggest holidays right up there with Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It’s carnival time in the cities and towns. Everyone drinks sima, a mead wine, champagne and beer.
The earliest known May celebration may have been the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held during the Republic years. It’s said that while it was perhaps the most licentious of all Roman holidays with all inhibitions off, families carried a bundle of wheat ears to the temple as an offering for good harvests and fertility. Or perhaps the oldest May revelry was the Maiouma or Maiuma, a festival held every three years to celebrate Dionysus and Aphrodite: wine and love. Originally the god of fruitfulness and vegetation, Dionysus came to be associated with wine and then wine came to be associated with love. Priapus, a god of fertility, is said to be the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, and our word wine comes from the Latin vino, which comes from the Roman name for Aphrodite: Venus.
Yesterday’s Romans are today’s Italians and they don’t let May get away without celebration, without a feast. It’s Calendimaggio or cantar Maggio, Maggio being Italian for Maia and our word May. Calendi means day. Everything is an allegory of rebirth, life returning. Singers known as Maggi or Maggerini (little Maggi), adorned with spring flowers like violets and roses, go from house to house singing romantic couplets. Gifts are exchanged, most of them eggs, wine and sweets—and, this being Italy, lots of food, especially porchetta.
Cinco de Mayo is not as big a day in Mexico as it has become in the United States for Mexicans. Originally intended to mark the triumph of the Mexican General Zaragoza over the troops of Napoleon III, it’s become a spring burst of celebration for all things Mexican, especially music, Margaritas and food. Some people think of it as taco time.
We Americans have our own special way of celebrating spring in the merry month of May. We honor moms, who bring forth new life, and graduates who are starting new life in the real world. We have a National Wine Day and a National Asparagus Day, to honor one of the first vegetables to emerge in spring from the frozen winter ground as a sign of life.
That pushy asparagus is traditionally thought of as a spring tonic. Dandelion greens, fiddleheads, nettles, purslane and rhubarb are in the same category. Look carefully at what’s included and you will see the first greenery to erupt in a garden, the first signs of life, of spring. These plants know how to max out minimal solar energy. As soon as days start to lengthen, they push up through cold, thawing ground, grab the still-tentative rays of sun and convert them into vigorous bloom. So, when we ingest these energy-rich solar storehouses, these plants rev up and recharge our sluggish system with a fresh hit of vitamins and minerals. Their exertion puts spring in our stomach and in our step. They make good mayhem to make us feel merry that winter’s gone now.