It’s May Day, a European spring holiday that dates back to the Middle Ages and beyond, with its roots in pagan traditions celebrating the renewal of life after winter. In fact, May Day is one of many festive occasions marking the arrival of spring around the world. Here are some of its other counterparts:
Nowruz, which means “The New Day” in Persian, marks the beginning of the New Year in Iran and typically falls near the vernal equinox in March. Although it is now a secular holiday celebrated across religious traditions in Iran, Nowruz’s origins are in the ancient religious ideas of Zoroastrianism, which stresses the complementary workings of good and evil and the interconnectedness of humanity and nature. Today, Iranians celebrate Nowruz over the course of 13 days by extensively cleaning their homes, purchasing new clothing, paying visits to family and friends, and by setting out a symbolic spring meal called Haft seen. On the thirteenth day of the festival, celebrants picnic outside with their families, in a symbolic renunciation of the bad luck traditionally associated with the number 13.
Holi, the popular Festival of Colors, features revellers in India and other countries with large Hindu populations throwing colored powders and water at each other. Although the holiday enjoys widespread secular participation, it comes from Hindu myth: the bonfires lit the day preceding the colorful melee represent the great faith that sustained Prahlad, a follower of Lord Vishnu, when he was seized and burnt by Holika, a demoness.
Who says the spring holidays have to be religious in origin? In May, the Canadian Tulip Festival comes to Ottawa, engulfing the capital city in beautiful color accompanied by music, performances, speakers, and food from around the globe. Ottawa’s tulips are a sign of grateful friendship from the Netherlands, in thanks for providing the Dutch royal family–Princess Juliana and her daughters–safe harbor during the Nazi occupation of their country. Certainly a cause for celebration! (P.S. Flower-themed festivals seem to be a time-honored strategy for publicly affirming the ties between nations. Washington, DC celebrates the United States’ friendship with Japan with the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival, starring plants originally donated by the Mayor of Tokyo).
In mid-April, the three-day Songkran Water festival marks the New Year in Thailand with a massive public water fight, meant to represent a cleansing of negative influences. Though the traditional iteration of the festival activity is a gentle, respectful sprinkling of water onto other people–a sign of respect and blessing–since the celebrations occur during the hottest month of the year in Thailand, revellers frequently douse each other in the streets.
In Bulgaria, Baba Marta preempts the arrival of spring: on March 1, people give each other woven red-and-white figures–martenitsi–which they wear until they see the first buds or birds of spring, after which celebrants tie their martenitsi to trees in recognition of the coming of spring. The holiday celebrates Baba Marta (“Granny March”), a woman whose smiling arrival heralds the end of winter; in some tales, the final snow of the season is actually Baba Marta shaking out her feather bed in the midst of her spring cleaning.
About the Author
Margaret Barthel recently graduated from Smith College with a degree in English Language and Literature. Among other things, she’s a writer, reader, history buff, and outdoors enthusiast with deep interests in feminism, politics, and the environment. A semester abroad studying at Oxford University and exploring continental Europe, in addition to plenty of quirky family vacations, are to blame for her love of travel. Find more of her work at margaretbarthel.wordpress.com.
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