Spring is coming. How are you welcoming it with a seat at your table?
In civilizations around the world, mankind honors the spring equinox in more ways than remarkable architectural achievements. People today still celebrate the spring equinox, also called the March or vernacular equinox, occurring this year on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.
For many cultures, the spring equinox is a cleansing holiday to rid themselves of bad spirits or malice as well as a time to welcome the new season and promise of spring. It symbolized new life and a new season, and it centered itself around community.
Food, too, played a symbolic role in these celebrations.
Our ancestors’ lifestyles were more connected to the sun and tracking its pathway than we are today, and it may go without saying that technological and scientific advancements have much to do with this.
The coming of spring gave cues to farmers when to start planting certain foods. And because of the equinox’s importance to many diverse cultures, sharing traditional cuisine with loved ones reinforces people’s connection to each other and the land.
This year, the equinox coincides with another major event that signals spring is here: The Full Worm Moon. Also called the March Full Moon, this phenomenon marks the first day of the year when worms begin to emerge from underground. Soon, birds will flock north (now that they have worms to eat), and the flowers will bud. Non-surprisingly, the spring equinox is not just a signal for humans that we will have more food to eat.
The reinvigoration of the planet during springtime gives the promise of summer fruits. It’s no wonder why food plays a symbolic role in vernacular equinox celebrations. So what does that look like around the world?
Here are some examples of how people once (and some still today) celebrate spring:
Yes – this exists. For centuries, people in Zenica, Bosnia welcome the first day of spring with a large breakfast of scrambled eggs. The egg breakfast symbolizes of new life, so people come together around the town’s river to cook cimbur (scrambled eggs) in large pots and share breakfast with friends and visitors.
The rest of the day is also a party. People share drinks, listen to live music, barbeque, and relax together. Although most people around the world won’t get the spring equinox off from work, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t also enjoy a large plate of cimbur in the morning.
This tradition is less about eating and more about play. Still, it’s a fun game played around the world on the vernacular equinox, from China to North America.
Old folklore claims that a person can stand an egg upright (without falling or breaking) on the spring equinox and that doing so would bring that person good luck. Scientifically this almost makes sense because the Earth’s tilt is perpendicular to the Sun on the equinox days. However, this theory has been disproven.
Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is one of the oldest holidays in the world. This 13-day, ancient festival with its roots in Zoroastrian traditions is shared by several Middle-Eastern countries: Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, India, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan.
To celebrate the first day of spring and renewal of nature, many people today prepare a haft seen table, which has an unknown origin. The haft seen is a decorated table in each home with seven symbolic items that all begin with the Persian letter sin (s):
Others might swap an item with other foods, like sumac or senjed, a dried fruit from the Lotus tree representing love.
In addition to the haft seen, families prepare traditional, special-occasion dishes, such as sabzi polo mahi (smoked fish and herbed rice), eggs, soup with noodles and karaf (a beef, celery, mint and dried lime stew served on rice).
As part of Nowruz, Afghani immigrants and people celebrate with traditional treats and picnics. Previously banned across the country for its roots in Zoroastrian traditions, this revitalized holiday is all about community. Many of the foods and delicacies have seven symbolic dried fruits, consistent with the cultures lucky-number-seven belief.
People create distinct (non-alcoholic) drinks containing seven fruits and nuts, an ode to the lucky number seven. Haft-mewa is another popular Nowruz treat – a cookie filled with seven symbolic dried fruits. In addition, Afghani people also make traditional qabuli piau, (a rice dish with carmelized raisins and carrots), sebzah (a rice dish with green vegetables), and samanak (a Nowruz sweet paste made of wheat flour).
If you’re looking for a boozier celebration, this English tradition is up your alley.
While Stonehenge in England is most known for its correlation with the summer and winter equinoxes, a smaller gala band together on the spring equinox to see the sun rise, too. During this festival, known as Ostara, pagans and nature-loving groups drink dandelion and burdock cordials, which signifies the cleansing of the blood.
A cordial is a sweetened distilled spirit, commonly called a liquor. Both are the same, but cordials are typically associated with fruit-flavored liquor. You can find a dandelion and burdock cordial here.
This is a special spring treat… for cows. Spring marks the beginning of Chinese farmers’ busy season, and for farmers near the Yangtze River, a time to thank their cattle for making it through the winter. These farmers give their cattle sticky rice balls, while people celebrate by eating “spring vegetables”. Because many locals choose to each seasonally (which is great for the planet), what counts as a “spring vegetable” varies by location.
Meanwhile, Japanese people make sweet rice balls for themselves and their families to enjoy.
The vernacular equinox in Japan reflects the Dias de los Muertes in Mexico as it’s a national holiday dedicated to visiting and bringing flowers to the graves of deceased family members. However, the festival was not always a national holiday. Before WWI when Japan was governed by the Shinto, the Vernal Equinox Day was a religious holiday called Shunki koreisa.
On this holiday, the people in Japan make Botamochi, sweet mashed rice balls wrapped with sweet azuki bean paste. For the autumn equinox, this treat is called Ohagi. To some interpretations, the red of the bean paste protects against bad spirits.
Remember that bit about the Full Worm Moon happening around the spring equinox? In Belarus, the worms emerging in spring mean the birds make their spring migration, so Belarusians welcome them home.
On March 21, Belarusians celebrate Kamaeditsa, also known as Gukanne Vyasny (Calling of Spring). In addition to decorating trees with paper birds and wearing traditional garb, people bake bird-shaped bread (a kind of dough figurine) for the birds (and more recently, to share). Once cooled, they take the loaves and toss them in the air. There’s a nice demonstration for how to make these treats here.
Celebrated in the weeks leading up the vernal equinox, the city of Valencia, Spain welcomes spring with festivities and fire.
Artists erect gigantic, stunning fallas (monuments), which are paraded around the city before being burned at night. The idea of it is this: everything that is bad is burnt and reborn from the ashes, welcoming a new season. Except: don’t burn the buñuelos and street food.
Street vendors prepare and sell tiny delicacies, many of which can only be bought during Las Fallas. The buñuelos de calabaza (pumpkin-flavored, deep-fried donuts) are a crowd favorite. For a festive drink, people share mistela (a local wine liquor).
Aside from the halfseen, Nowruz has different food traditions depending on each country and ethnic group. In Uzbekistan, wheat is at the heart of food celebrations.
They prepare the traditional meal sumalyak, a dish made from germinated wheat and takes a whole night to bake. It’s a historic Turkish bread, one that comes with a few superstitions brides should know. The bread tastes like molasses-flavored cream of wheat and is served with Ugra Oshi (meat soup with noodles).
For as long as mankind has celebrated the four equinoxes and solstices, food played an important, delectable part of those celebrations. Beyond the religious holidays Holi, Passover, and East, which fall close to the spring equinox but aren’t directly connected, people found ways to cherish the planet and changing seasons. Even today, the vernal equinox emphasizes the link between food and society.
While this is not an exhaustive list, these spring equinox food celebrations from around the world give you a starting point to host your own salute to spring.
The last question left is this: which one will you try?