Marking change with ritual and belief 

Ah, spring, when a seed, suddenly sleepless, sends a shoot into the yielding earth. Even if it finds a Disney parking lot blocking its last thrust, it will, as poet Theodore Roethke wrote, keep hunting for chinks in the dark.

The event that heralds this imperative is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. It usually occurs on March 20 or 21, depending on leap year. "Vernal" means spring. "Equinox" means equal day, equal night. Everywhere on earth there are exactly 12 hours each of daylight and darkness, because, moving from south to north, the sun's direct ray crosses the equator.

This celestial choreography has generated celebrations, rituals and myths from tillers to tribes, pagans to Protestants, scientists to shamans.

"The most persistent myth is that the vernal equinox is the one day in the year you can spin a raw egg on end and it'll remain upright, because of a gravitational alignment between the Earth and sun," says Laurent Pellerin, assistant director to planetarium operations at Seminole Community College. "Not true."

Try it yourself. Try an egg; try dozens. "If one should spin," says Pellerin skeptically, "it'll do it on any day of the year, not just at the equinox.

"Another main myth deals with which constellation the vernal equinox is actually in; over a 26,000-year period it will move through all 13 houses of the zodiac. Most people don't know it's been in Pisces for 2,000 years; most horoscopes for March 21 still say the sun sign is Aries. It was -- 2,000 years ago. Astrologers are way behind."

Astrologer Dikki-Jo Mullen is disdainful. "That boring old argument! The procession of the equinoxes changes every 72 years and moves a degree backwards, and that shows in the heavens. Astronomers are so misinformed.

"Anyway, this time represents new potential, growth, spirit of the pioneer, as it were. The equinox is related strongly to balance and the consciousness of spring, both in nature and within our psyche."

Astronomy/astrology arguments aside, since prehistory people have tied their lives to lunar phases and lunar signs.

Deb Keller, senior associate editor of The Farmer's Almanac, whose readers, since 1792, have more likely had their hands on a plough than their eyes on Aries, says there are myriad, and sometimes conflicting, vernal equinox farming proverbs. While one says to plant potatoes on Good Friday, another says not only should you not plant potatoes on Good Friday, but that you shouldn't even break ground: To do so would be a sacrilege.

Old Almanacs warn of equinoctial storms. "Tradition says that as the wind and weather is at the time of the equinox, so they will be for the following months," says Keller.

Groundhog Day is also tied to the equinox. However, the groundhog became a messenger by default. "Ancient Northern European farmers needed to get a jump on when they could get crops sowed and so watched bears and badgers because they hibernated. In the 1800s, Pennsylvania Dutch settlers found that we didn't have those animals and had to use what was here."

Long before settlers from anywhere showed up for the land-grab, Native Americans had been respectful stewards of the New World.

Beverly Ford, owner of Spiral Circle bookstore and founder of Native American celebrations there, says, "The four seasonal changes were extremely important for them, because their path was so close to the Earth Mother. Through her was their complete connectedness to the Great Spirit.

"They walked with her in harmony and balance, realizing that they were an integral part of her progress. As spring came, they harmonized with her birthing."

In the heart of the Everglades, Florida's own fertile, primordial ooze, the vernal equinox signals to local Native Americans the drawing near of their springtime spectacular: The Green Corn Dance.

Closed to outsiders, this spiritual event occurs at secret South Florida locations each spring. A time of paying homage to the Creator for providing food, the celebration includes purification, and coming-of-age rites for young males. Disputes are also settled. No one is allowed to consume any corn from the current crop until the culmination of the festival, when there's a corn-eating frenzy.

"All clans get together -- Wind clan, Bird clan, Panther clan, Big City clan, soooo many clans," says Miccosukee tribal elder Buffalo Tiger. "For four days we eat, play ball, stomp dance all day -- maybe all night."

Among the most ancient celebrants of the vernal equinox were progenitors of today's Wiccans. With Celtic and Nordic roots, Wicca is a nature religion whose Wheel of the Year celebrates the turning of the seasons. Among their Sabbats -- sacred holidays -- "Ostara" falls on the spring equinox and is bedecked with pale greens, yellows and pinks, a day to ask for the blessing of the seeds that will be planted that night by candlelight.

The seeds represent ideas that participants would like to plant in their life or changes they'd like to make. While planting the seed, one visualizes it as an idea in the subconscious, to tend until it blossoms into reality.

Wiccans, as did long-ago pagans, also color eggs to celebrate the fertility that covers the earth and the lengthening days that will now begin to overtake darkness. There are songs, dancing and bonfires. At twilight, cakes, ale and braids of bread are served.

"In Wicca, the vernal equinox represents the myth of Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter," says Jack Greeney, owner of Herne's Hollow.

Persephone was abducted by Pluto to be his wife in the lower world. Her mother struck a bargain that allowed the daughter to return home for half the year.

"We celebrate her return to the green world beneath the blue sky, following the six months she spends in the land of the dead. The equinox brings the first stirring of life that greets her."

Greeney has been a Wiccan all his life. "My mother is a Wiccan," he says. "Her family came from northern Italy. Many there never converted to the ‘new religion,' as they call it."

Not for a lack of effort by Rome, says Paul Trembly, technical manager of the Dr. Phillips CineDome at Orlando Science Center. "The Romans were very sneaky. Because pagans followed a lunar calendar, full moons dated their festivals. In order to convert them, a lot of their holidays were picked as church holidays to make conversion of the conquered people easier. For instance, the shepherds did not tend their flock by night in the dead of winter, and Easter became the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox."

Regardless of the dogma you believe or the divinity you worship, one thing is likely: If, on the Day of the Balanced Egg, you go to some green glen and stand in silence there, while the Earth's rotation axis nudges ever-so-slowly toward the Age of Aquarius, you can strike your own balance, plant your own spiritual seeds. And, if you listen, likely you will hear even the dirt take a small sip of spring's breath.

More by Dee Rivers


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