8 Rituals and Traditions to Welcome Spring and Say Goodbye to Winter

Goodbye winter, welcome spring!

The first day of spring (March 19 in 2024) for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere is an eagerly anticipated event around the world. Although the Northern and Southern hemispheres celebrate the start of the season at different times of the year, both share in observing the equinox—which comes from the Latin words aequus and nox meaning equal and night—with unique customs.

Spring represents rebirth and rejuvenation and many of the celebrations reflect this: Homes are cleaned, blossoms are admired, and, in some cases, the dark winter months are sent off in dramatic, flaming fashion. Here are some of the most interesting winter-into-spring rituals and traditions.

Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sugaring season

The tail end of winter isn’t exactly renowned for bountiful harvests—unless, perhaps, the crop is maple syrup. In the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, the weeks before and during early spring are known as sugaring season when syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. The season typically starts around mid-February and lasts through early April; during this time, syrup is made, served, and sold at buildings in the woods known as sugar shacks.

Locals and visitors alike flock to these cozy shacks, eager to pour warm maple syrup on fresh, powdery snow to make a deliciously sweet treat. In New England, the taffy-like candy is known as sugar on snow while French-speaking Canada calls it tire sur la neige (pull on the snow).

Making or eating sugar on snow is a simple and satisfying way to mark the changing of the seasons but making the amber liquid is a much longer labor of love. It begins in the fall when maple trees store starches in their trunks. As early spring temperatures begin to rise, the starches convert to sugars and the above-freezing days and below-freezing nights create the pressure needed for the sweet liquid known as sap to flow from holes drilled in the tree’s trunk. The extracted sap is then boiled to reduce it to its familiar concentrated, syrupy texture. Not every tree is sugaring season material, though—it needs to be about 40 years old to be big enough to tap.

Spring at Hee Hee Illahee RV Park in Salem, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherry blossoms

One of the best things about spring is all the new flowers it brings. Without a doubt, some of the most breathtaking blooms can be seen on cherry trees. Before the trees produce fruit, their elegant limbs erupt in pillows of white and pastel-pink flowers. Japan’s cherry blossoms—known as sakura—are especially notable producing a spring spectacle known around the world. The blooming season is dependent on weather but generally happens for about two weeks in April when it is celebrated with festivals that draw millions of spectators every year.

The springtime cherry blossoms hold special significance in Japan where people host picnic parties under the trees as part of a centuries-old tradition called hanami—meaning, literally, flower viewing. The custom originated during the Nara period and was popularized as an aristocratic gathering under Emperor Saga in the ninth century complete with sake, poetry, and other refined activities. Today’s hanami celebrations are decidedly less formal but no less festive: They’re enjoyed by people of all backgrounds and often go well into the night with food, drinking, and dancing. Similar cherry blossom festivals take place in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Prep the RV for spring travel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring cleaning

If spring’s longer days and warmer breezes have you wanting to throw open the windows and wipe every corner of your house (or RV) clean, you’re not alone. The age-old tradition of spring cleaning isn’t just a feel-good practice—it has roots in some cultural customs and was even once a necessity because of how homes were kept warm in the colder months.

During the 1800s, people primarily heated their homes with wood- or coal-burning fireplaces and used kerosene lamps for light in the long winter months. This often led to traces of soot and grime on just about every surface in the house requiring a deep cleaning come spring when people would take everything outside to literally shake off the dust. Modern conveniences have made these original reasons irrelevant but the tradition of spring cleaning persists anyway.

In some places, the ritual also has cultural or religious significance. In Iran, for example, the practice has its name: It’s called khane tekani (or shaking the house) and it’s tied to the Iranian New Year, Nowruz which coincides with the spring equinox.

Groundhog? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a full month and a half before the official first day of spring but it has become a familiar marker in the slow transition of the seasons for people in the US and Canada. Each year on February 2, a groundhog is coaxed out of its underground burrow to provide a weather forecast for the coming weeks. If it sees its shadow, the rodent is scared back into its hole for six more weeks of winter. No shadow means warmer spring weather will arrive earlier than expected.

The decidedly unscientific ritual has been taking place in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania since 1887 but its origins date back to the fourth-century Christian holiday Candlemas. During Candlemas, clergy members would distribute candles representing how long and cold the winter would be. German Protestants later put their spin on this by introducing a hedgehog as their seasonal prognosticator and when German settlers arrived in America they continued the tradition using a groundhog. Now, the event is not only a major local affair but also a global news story every February.

Eggs, a symbol of new life © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Egg painting, cooking, and eating

Eggs are everywhere in spring, thanks in large part to their association with Easter and resurrection in the Christian faith. But their significance isn’t limited to just one religion or culture: Eggs have symbolized new life and reproduction throughout most of history dating back to Pagan sun-worshipping rituals and are important parts of many spring traditions to this day.

In Bosnia, residents of Zenica celebrate with Cimburijada (the Festival of Scrambled Eggs), a tradition that honors the renewal of life that comes with the season. At dawn on the first day of spring, locals gather to make and share giant dishes of scrambled eggs typically prepared in the open air using hundreds of eggs, butter, and other secret ingredients.

In Iran, during Nowruz, decorated eggs represent fertility for one’s family and are considered among the most important items on the ceremonial haftseen table. And no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere one of the most well-known spring equinox traditions involves standing an egg on its end. A long-running legend purports that this feat can only be achieved on the first day of spring since the Sun and Moon are equidistant from the Earth, the pull of gravity is equalized and therefore an egg is less likely to fall over.

This is simply not true. There is no gravitational change during the equinox that would help an egg balance.

Fields of spring wildflowers in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Burning effigies

Fire is used as a comforting (and sometimes necessary) heat and light source throughout the winter. So what better way is there to send off the cold months than with raging hot flames? Many cultures around the world incorporate effigies and bonfires into their spring celebrations upholding old rituals that are as lively and fun as they are dramatic.

In Poland and some other Slavic countries, many people commemorate the arrival of spring with a Slavic tradition known as the Drowning of Marzanna (the Slavic goddess of winter). On the first day of spring, Marzanna’s likeness made of straw and dressed in traditional local clothing is set on fire and tossed into the water in an attempt to defeat winter’s icy last gasp and ensure a good harvest in the season to come. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, the sacrificial effigy is a life-sized, cotton-stuffed snowman, the Böögg who is filled with fireworks and lit on fire. The faster the Böögg burns the warmer the upcoming spring and summer will be.

Spring wildflowers in Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holi

Holika Dahan or the lighting of bonfire takes place on the eve of Holi. The day is also popularly called Chhoti Holi or the Small Holi. The bigger event—play with the color takes place on the next big day. Holika Dahan is an extremely popular tradition and is symbolic of triumph of good over evil. This ancient Hindu celebration also known as the festival of spring or the festival of colors has become one of the most popular and well-known equinox experiences in India and beyond. What started as a religious holiday has turned into a larger cultural celebration of the arrival of spring and the end of winter.

There are numerous legends associated with this ancient tradition and it is difficult to pin-point as to when actually the tradition started.

Holi is typically held every March and is most widely known for its joyous explosions of colorful powder which revelers use to douse each other in vibrant hues. Holi celebrations also include lively public gatherings and a ceremonial bonfire on the night known as Holika Dahan which takes place the day before the main event.

King cake symbolizes Mardi Gras season © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras known as Shrove Tuesday or Fat Tuesday falls annually on the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The word Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in the French language. Celebrations include festivals, parades, dancing, and feasting before the fasting starts on Ash Wednesday.

Mardi Gras is a tradition that dates back thousands of years to pagan celebrations of spring and fertility including the raucous Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Lupercalia. When Christianity arrived in Rome, religious leaders decided to incorporate these popular local traditions into the new faith, an easier task than abolishing them altogether. As a result, the excess and debauchery of the Mardi Gras season became a prelude to Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penance between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.

Worth Pondering…

Come with me into the woods. Where spring is advancing as it does no matter what not being singular or particular but one of the forever gifts and certainly visible.

—Mary Oliver

Groundhog Day 2024

Today is Groundhog Day, the annual tradition of seeing what a groundhog says about the rest of the winter season

Happy Groundhog Day! If you live in a cold-weather state you’re likely itching to know whether the famed Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow and whether he has predicted six more weeks of winter or an early spring.

You can readily find these results but I wanted to dig a little deeper into this rather odd tradition of trusting a groundhog with our meteorological fate. It’s actually linked to the Christian holiday Candlemas which also falls on February 2.

The celebration we know and love today was first recorded in a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, newspaper in 1886 though it’s likely the tradition of having a groundhog predict the weather had already been going on for decades before that.

6 more weeks of winter? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What Is Candlemas? Inside the February Festival of Lights

The holidays have officially come and gone but millions of people around the world continue to celebrate the season for more than a month into the New Year. Taking place annually on February 2, Candlemas is a historical Christian holiday that continues to be observed exactly 40 days after Christmas. 

In medieval England, the date was known to be the official end of Christmas and was a great feast day, according to the English Heritage organization. Today, depending on the tradition of various branches of the Christian faith the holiday often goes by other names. The Roman Catholic Church refers to the holiday as the Presentation of the Lord; in the Anglican tradition, it’s known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; and in the Greek tradition, Hypapante (translation: meeting) refers to Jesus meeting with Simeon in the Temple.

While the name of the celebration may vary, the source of inspiration remains the same: the festivities commemorate the Virgin Mary’s purification in the Temple of Jerusalem as well as her presentation of baby Jesus, her firstborn child, to God, 40 days after giving birth (as depicted in Luke 2:22 of the Bible). 

6 more weeks of winter? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On this date, Christians will often remove their Christmas decorations. Of course, a lot of people do not follow this tradition today opting to remove their Christmas decorations on the Twelfth Night which is the eve of the Epiphany. Others simply remove them when it is convenient. However, those who want to follow tradition will take their Christmas decorations down on this date.

Given that Jesus declared himself to be the light of the world in John 8:12, candles are featured prominently in the celebrations. Traditionally it’s an occasion to take candles to church to be blessed—Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, and Anglicans are particularly devout in following this tradition. The blessed candles may then be used at home for the rest of the year. 

It’s also believed that the Christian celebration may have begun as a replacement for older pagan festivities that marked the shift from winter to spring. In ancient Celtic culture, Imbolc, taking place between February 1 and 2, was considered to be the first day of spring. Celts were said to pray for the health of the soil before planting crops around this time of year as a means of honoring the goddess Brigid.

Ancient Romans honored their god Lupercus, protector of farmers and harvest time in general, by celebrating Lupercalia. More broadly, this point in time between the winter solstice (December 21) and the March equinox (March 20) makes Candlemas a handy way to mark the halfway point of winter.

Candlemas celebrations provide an opportunity to enjoy traditional dishes although they vary based on region. The Mexican tradition feature tamales while in Belgium, France, and Swiss Romandy, crepes are the highlight of the holiday feast.

…or an early spring? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The winter-blooming flower known as the snowdrop, or galanthas nivalis, goes by the nickname Candlemas Bells and is widely considered to be a symbol of the holiday. Tradition used to dictate that the flowers should be kept from the home until the holiday although eventually the belief that the flowers would purify the home overrode the earlier superstition.

Worth Pondering…

If Candlemas day be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If on Candlemas day it be showre and rain

Winter is gone and will not come again.

—John Ray, 1627-1705

Groundhog Day: A Break from the Freeze?

Why do we put our faith in these furry little forecasters once a year?

There will be six more weeks of winter, Punxsutawney Phil predicted as he emerged from his burrow this morning to perform his Groundhog Day duties.

It was 30 years ago when the movie Groundhog Day came out, yet it must seem like yesterday for the die-hards who anxiously await this annual prognosticator.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 20,000 visitors gathered at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania—about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburg—as members of Punxsutawney Phil’s inner circle summoned him from his tree stump at dawn to learn if he had seen his shadow, a message they said Phil communicated in groundhogese. After Phil’s prediction was announced, the crowd repeatedly chanted six more weeks!

According to folklore, spring would come early if he didn’t see it.

Winter lovers can rejoice as the legendary Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow on this Groundhog Day which means spring won’t be arriving early in 2023. And while it may seem silly to take Phil’s word for it, it turns out the majority of Americans are more likely to trust a rodent than their local meteorologist.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s according to a recent OnePoll survey of 2,000 U.S. adults which reveals that 58 percent agree that whether or not Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day determines if there will be six more weeks of winter. Moreover, more than one in four Americans “strongly agree” with this statement. Three in five believe Phil more than meteorologists, hmm.

Since COVID-19 has changed the world so drastically over the last three years, maybe it’s okay to have this one nice thing to enjoy every year—unless you hate winter, too!

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions date back to 1887. Of course, since the average lifespan of a groundhog is about six years, the name is really attached to a monolithic organization of different groundhogs that trot out once a year in Gobbler’s Knob to perform their duty.

In the words of Phil Connors from Harold Ramis’ 1993 movie Groundhog Day, “When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anyway, Phil did see his shadow this morning—which means he was scared of his shadow and has run back inside his den and pronounced six more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous groundhog seer but he’s certainly not the only one. Groundhog Day celebrations are major events in other parts of North America.

In Canada, similar celebrations are held with Ontario’s clairvoyant rodent Wiarton Willie, Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam, and Quebec’s designated oracle groundhog Fred la Marmotte. Willie is the successor to the original Wiarton Willy who died in 2018.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fred made his prediction in Val-d’Espoir, Quebec, on the eastern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula. This Fred is still new to predicting—organizers call him Fred Junior. The previous Fred has retired.

The Groundhog Day ritual may have something to do with February 2 landing midway between winter solstice and spring equinox, but no one knows for sure.

The annual event may have its origin in a German legend about a furry rodent. Some say the tradition can be traced to Greek mythology or it could have started with Candlemas, a Christian custom named for the lighting of candles during the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One Scottish couplet summed up the superstition: “If Candlemas Day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.”

In medieval Europe, farmers believed that if hedgehogs emerged from their burrows to catch insects, it was a sure sign of an early spring.

However, when Europeans settled in eastern North America, the groundhog was substituted for the hedgehog.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Canada’s West Coast in British Columbia, they now call on marmots like Van Island Violet who lives on Mount Washington. Like groundhogs, marmots are a type of large ground squirrel. But, like the yellow-bellied marmots of Vernon, Violet tends to be asleep on February 2; therefore, she cannot see her shadow.

This makes sense of course and highlights a danger of asking a groundhog in the first place. More winter just means a sleep-in for the marmots and who doesn’t like to sleep in?

In general, rodents don’t have a great track record when it comes to long-term forecasting.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In his book, The Day Niagara Falls Ran Dry, climatologist David Phillips cites a survey of 40 years of weather data from 13 Canadian cities which concluded that there were an equal number of cloudy and sunny days on February 2. During that time, the groundhogs’ predictions were right only 37 per cent of the time.

There are other pseudo Phils: Manitoba’s Merv is a puppet while Alberta’s Balzac Billy is a six-foot tall sunglass wearing mascot who uses his thumb to check for a shadow. Known as the Prairie Prognosticator, the groundhog signals a thumbs down if he sees his shadow or thumbs up for no shadow and an early spring.

Meanwhile, Winnipeg Wyn is a fortune-telling ambassador groundhog at Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. Instead of watching to see if Wyn sees her shadow, the rehabilitation centre said it bases its prediction on her behavior which is a more reliable indicator.

A break from the freeze? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether it’s about giving us hope or really just celebrating an animal that we don’t celebrate very often, I think it’s wonderful. And, if it gets people outside for just a few minutes then that’s awesome!

Worth Pondering…

Always maintain a kind of summer, even in the middle of winter.

—Henry David Thoreau