Vernal Equinox, Nowruz Or Ostara — It All Means Spring!

Vernal Equinox to scientists, Ostara to pagans, Nowruz if you are Zoroastrian, and New Year in Persian communities – however you name it, the equinox happened at 11 seconds after 6:45 p.m. EDT (3:45 p.m. PDT) Friday March 20. The spring, or vernal, equinox, marks the moment when days and nights are equal (equinox is from the latin “equal night”) in the seasonal change from winter solstice darkness to long sunshine summer days. Important to astronomers and religious practitioners alike, the vernal equinox is at the center of a multitude of rituals.

Although Nowruz, on the vernal equinox, is a holy day only for Zoroastrians, Iranians continue to celebrate the day as a national holiday unrelated to its religious origins. In Washington, crowds gathered to attend the White House equinox Nowruz party while the President gave his annual “Nowruz Message to the Iranian People.” In Vancouver, the Fire Festival at Ambleside Beach drew many members of the Iranian community as they celebrated the equinox with food, dancing and the ancient tradition of fire-leaping. Pat Johnson for Vancouver Courier writes,

“When jumping over the fire, participants will say ‘I give my yellow colour to you and I take my red colour from you,’ yellow representing illness and troubles, red meaning warmth and health.”

The beach party is only the beginning of the 12-day vernal equinox celebration. In the days to come, homes will fill with the fragrance of spring flowers as Iranians spring clean, and decorate with tulips, hyacinths and green wheat. Families visit, share pastries and nuts, and, as reported by The National, try to get along so that their year will go well.

“It is believed that whatever a person does on the day influences the rest of the year. Arguments and fights mean a bad year while good behaviour is rewarded with a good year.”

Pagans and Wiccans have a whole other take on the equinox holiday. The fertility goddess Eostre is widely believed to have given her name to the vernal equinox pagan holy day (and to the Christian Easter, much to the chagrin of many Christians) and traditions of Ostara reflect that. Colored eggs, lilies, and bunny rabbits — themes that are incorporated into many of the various vernal equinox celebrations — all carry associations with fertility and new life. Other traditions include making or buying new clothes, planting seedlings and giving sweet gifts of honey or candy. These are rituals that are also familiar to anyone who had a new Easter outfit or waited for the Easter Bunny to bring a basket of chocolate and jelly beans.

Astronomers have their kind of vernal equinox fun too. The North Texas Times describes Austin College’s specially designed Oscar C. Page Atrium, where students gather to watch equinox events as Adams Observatory director David Baker offers guidance.

“The building itself serves as a large astronomical observatory that displays the movement of the Sun across the building’s atrium and marks the solstices and equinoxes along a meridian line in the floor Sunlight passing through a small gnomon hole in the roof radiates across the atrium floor.[and at] solar noon the beam of light should fall on the equinox marker.”

However we refer to the vernal equinox, it always means spring, melting snow, warmer weather and summertime are on the way. And that’s something to celebrate!

[Image from Mario Tama/Getty Images]

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