The Best Places to Kick off Spring
Vernal Equinox Day—when daytime and nighttime are each exactly 12 hours—is actually a public holiday in Japan, where most people have the day off work. (Though the holiday is now secular, the original Shinto observance of visiting ancestral burial sites is still common.) Elsewhere in the world, people mark the day with traditions both sacred and profane (though not necessarily with the day off). Here’s where you can join in.
Pagans and druids have been gathering to celebrate the equinox at Stonehenge—the Neolithic circle of stones built in three phases between 3,000 BC and 1600 BC—for centuries. Since 1977, the stones have been roped off to visitors, who are allowed to walk only around the perimeter. But recently, English Heritage began allowing special access inside the circle four times a year: the winter and summer solstice, and the fall and spring equinox. (For help with logistics, try Stonehenge Tours or Solstice Events.) Music, dancing and drumming begin at first light of dawn. Dandelion and burdock mead was the traditional drink starting in the Middle Ages.
With the hundreds of thousands of people who flock there each equinox, it’s almost hard to believe the archaeological site Teotihuacan was for centuries an abandoned city. (Then the Aztecs came in around 1300 BC and gave it its name, which means The Place Where Men Become Gods.) Visitors – usually dressed in white with red scarves (according to tradition, these colors help better absorb the good energy that peaks during the equinox) – dance, recite prayers, and climb the 238 steps to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, built about 80 AD and thought to be a fertility symbol.
The ancient Mayan Chichén Itza – with its 79-foot pyramid, El Castillo, aka the Pyramid of Kulkulkan (or Quetzalcoatl) – dates to 550 AD. Every year on the autumn and spring equinoxes, for about an hour beginning at 4 pm, the light of the sun hits the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, making it look like a feathered snake is slithering slowly down the pyramid’s staircase from the heavens to join the stone serpent head at the base. Thousands of people travel from around the world to celebrate this spectacle, usually dressed in white to rid themselves of bad vibes and attract positive energy from the sun.
During ancient times, kings wanted to connect the earth with the sky, so they’d build temples to take advantage of astronomical phenomena. You can see this at Angkor Wat, a massive stone temple complex built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century AD. On the morning of the spring equinox, the sun rises up the side of the central tower of the main Angkor temple and seems to exactly crown its peak. (Trivia alert: The Scottish photographer John Thomson in 1866 took the first known pictures of Angkor Wat; they may very well seem like the last ones not full of tourists. For help capturing the sunrise – and making it look like you were the only one there – try Angkor Photography Tours.)
In the central Bosnian city of Zenica, people put a little spring in their breakfast by making kiddie-swimming-pool-size pans of that traditional symbol of the season: eggs. The holiday is called Cimburijada – literally, the Festival of Scrambled Eggs – and some townspeople even pitch tents the night before so as not to miss the dawn festivities, held in the Kamberovica field, next to the Bosna [CQ] River. (The celebrations also involve alcohol, which may or may not eventually lead to the first dip of the season in the icy river.)
A thousand years before the ancient Egyptians built the Great Pyramid at Giza, inhabitants on the island of Malta built the megalithic limestone Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples – making them perhaps the earliest free-standing structures that still exist. There are three temple complexes, each arranged in figure 8s. The complex that faces east was likely a solar observatory, and with its spiral carvings and dotted patterns, it’s always atmospheric. But at sunrise on the equinox, a ray of sun illuminates the altar, giving the ancient place a hushed, holy feeling.
After Uzbekistan declared its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, a revival of the ancient customs and traditions of the Uzbek people began. One of those is Navruz, a spring equinox holiday (it’s also the Persian New Year, and it’s celebrated around central and western Asia in different ways.) The traditional meal is sumalyak, a dish of sprouted grains – a symbol of life, abundance and health – that women cook slowly all night, singing while they stir. (Sumalyak tastes like molasses-flavored cream of wheat, and with the first bite, you should make a wish.) There are also impromptu street fairs, traditional music and dancing, plus sporting competitions, some of which you can see during with a Navruz Tour.