With the arrival of calendar spring, daylight saving time and the misguided hope that winter is coming to an end, March is a transitional month here in northern Vermont. Exactly what comprises that transition is generally up for grabs. Anything can happen this month, and it often does. Summerlike warmth, raging nor’easters, hubcap-deep mud or back roads still locked in ice and — all too frequently — their malevolent progeny: frozen ruts, imposing their own agenda on even the most formidable four-wheeled-drive vehicle after even a minor dusting of powdered sugar snow. Traversing several miles of back road gets dicey this time of year either on foot or in a vehicle. March imposes a gantlet of conditions that can easily facilitate sliding 100 yards down a hill sideways on rock-hard ice or providing the kind of slurry that has no difficulty sucking the boots off your feet. Depending on whether you’re in sunshine or shade, you can almost simultaneously feel elated and depressed: Spring feels just around the corner, but within a couple of steps, the corner fades in the distance.
The meteorological problem with March is while the vernal equinox, which arrives on the 21st this year, suggests that spring is here — which it technically is — every other connotation of the word “spring” is likely sequestered out there somewhere as though it’s waiting for the snowbanks to recede. And considering the length of this winter, which landed around Halloween masquerading as late fall, froze Thanksgiving as thoroughly as a Swanson TV dinner and might ironically last until April Fool’s Day, cabin fever appears to be afflicting Vermonters on a more pandemic level than usual.
So if you’re feeling that your first dead skunk — the traditional north country indication of spring’s arrival — is still weeks away, you might consider some other rites of spring practiced far and wide to get you through the last, long days of stuck-in-the-shack madness while maintaining whatever sanity you may have retained. Balancing an egg on its end — theoretically only possible on the equinox — falls somewhat short of being a panacea for all plagues that a lingering winter might offer. Coloring eggs is only minimally preferable, especially since Easter this year doesn’t occur until late April, a full month after spring’s official arrival.
Speaking of which, ever-resourceful Christians appear to have appropriated Wiccan equinox rituals into their Easter celebration much the same as they borrowed Christmas from ancient pagans celebrating winter solstice. In Wiccan mythology, Ostara characterizes the reunification of the goddess with her lover who spent the winter in death, not unlike the biblical story of Christ’s resurrection. Even the day on which Easter falls is rooted in ancient astronomy, landing on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. Star-gazing notwithstanding, thousands of years of all manner of spring revelry are largely focused on rebirth after a long, cold winter.
As you can imagine, end-of-winter rituals vary with geography — some are steeped in religiosity and others purely secular — but the theme of rebirth permeates celebrations whether in cathedrals or caves. While ancient Christians awaited a resurrected savior’s return, for other early peoples, the re-emergence of the growing season was reason to rejoice: Food supplies would soon be restored.
Shortly after the equinox in Thailand, the annual festival of Songkran takes place, celebrating the astrological passage as New Year’s Day. Although Buddhist monasteries are visited as well as elderly relatives, the main activity appears to be throwing water on anyone you come in contact with. Both tourists and locals take to the streets armed with water guns, hoses and buckets, drenching whomever they encounter. Hindus in Northern India replace the water with multicolored powder, paying tribute to the many hues of the new season and events from Hindu mythology.
In central Asia, “Nowruz” begins innocently enough with spring cleaning but quickly escalates into a multi-day festival with bonfires, costumes and family remembrance, eventually leading to music, dancing and food in and around the city’s public places. “Cimburijada” in Bosnia translates into “The Festival of Scrambled Eggs,” which is celebrated at dawn on the first day of spring by the residents of Zenica. Gathering on the shore of the Bosna River, people share a meal of scrambled eggs while drinking and listening to music.
One perhaps more familiar spring ritual was begun by indigenous people of North America and later adopted by European settlers. Maple sugaring has become a lucrative business carried on to this day, primarily in both Vermont and eastern Canada. Since ideal conditions for a good sap run include sunny skies with minimal wind and high temperatures in the 40s following crisp, below-freezing nights, one sure way of knowing spring has actually arrived is steam billowing out of the sugar shacks that dot hillsides across the region.
But waiting for those first puffs of steam seems interminable in mid-March as you toss another log in the wood stove and watch the falling snow, heedlessly flipping through a seed catalog, knowing spring will eventually come as it always does. It’s just that some years you want to encourage it along just a little.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.