This time of year, I recall the line from a Joan Baez song, “Winter’s in labor, soon to give birth to the spring.” In song and in a rich array of religious observances, we find encouraging and enlightening themes of renewal and new life as we wait for and celebrate signs of spring.
March 17, after the full moon, is Holi for Hindus in India, Nepal and around the world. It is the spring festival of color and love, a joyeous and boisterous holiday when colored water and powder are tossed, sometimes in good-spirited water fights, and parades of people painted bright colors sing and play music, sharing visits and treats with family and friends. The India Association of Maine hosts an annual Holi celebration, this year on March 30 in Scarborough.
In the Northern Hemisphere, March 20 was the first astronomical day of spring, the vernal equinox. At 12:57 p.m. EDT, the annual tilting rotation of the earth relative to the sun brought us precisely the same amount of daylight and darkness. From this point of perfect balance until the summer solstice, daylight and warmth increase, bringing forth new life from the earth.
Life in balance, the return of the light, and the quickening of new life are celebrated at Ostara, the ancient and contemporary pagan observance on March 20. Observances include rituals retelling ancient stories of rebirth and renewal, and symbols of new life such as herbs, eggs, and young animals. An interesting legend is that at the exact moment of the equinox, a raw egg will balance upright on end, owing to the balance at that moment of the earth’s gravity. The Maine Pagan Clergy Association and local covens offer open rituals, such as the Ostara Ritual held in Monument Square in Portland.
Naw Ruz celebrates the beginning of the new year among followers of the Baha’i Faith on March 20. It is the first day of the 19-month Baha’i calendar, observed with the end of the 19 Day Fast and celebrated as a time of spiritual growth and renewal. It is also observed as Norooz or Nav Ruz (“The New Day”) by Zoroastrians and Persians. Maine is home to one of four education and conference centers of the National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is, the Greenacre Baha’i School in Eliot.
Pesach, or Passover, is the festival of new life and freedom celebrated by Jews around the world and here in Maine, this year from sunset to sunset April 15-22. The date is based on the Jewish lunar calendar, and migrates around the spring season on our Julian calendar. It recalls the journey of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land which became Israel, and takes its name from the account in the Torah of the “passing over” by the angel of death of the Hebrew households whose door posts were marked by the blood of sacrificial lambs. The Passover ritual meal, the Seder, includes symbolic foods including two symbols of the emergence of new life, boiled egg and fresh herbs. Although most Seders take place in homes, Jewish congregations in Maine offer special services and celebrations for the holiday.
Also rich with themes of spring and new life is the celebration of Easter, whose date is determined by solar (pagan) and lunar (Jewish) elements: Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. April 20 this year, it is the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection to new life, and the promise of new and imperishable life which he taught. This most significant celebration of the church year is marked with joyous services of prayer and song. Families gather for special meals, wear new clothes, and give children Easter baskets filled with treats including fresh greens, eggs and bunnies. Churches across Maine will offer special services on Easter Sunday, with extra displays of flowers and choral music.
Particularly welcome after a long, cold Maine winter, spring means renewal in every part of the Northern Hemisphere. In these richly different yet thematically connected holidays, we see its expression colored and flavored with cultural and historical context. Whether we are celebrating color and joy at Holi, new beginnings at Ostara, a new year with Naw Ruz, history and hope of liberation with Passover, or newness of life with Easter, celebrations of spring bring promise, hope and joy, along with appreciation of the richness of difference and universality of common themes among us all.
Andrea Thompson McCall is a retired United Church of Christ minister who served as interfaith haplain at the University of Southern Maine.