The vernal equinox this year falls on Tuesday, March 20. In the Northern Hemisphere, the day marks the start of spring. In the Southern Hemisphere, the same day marks the start of the autumnal equinox, or the beginning of fall.
The word vernal comes from the Latin word vernalis, meaning “of the spring.” And equinox comes from the Latin words aequus, meaning equal, and nox, meaning night. The day has 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night time.
On this day, people living in colder areas of the Northern Hemisphere hope they can put away their winter coats. They also may hope to begin planting flowers and vegetables in a garden.
But for those of us in the northeastern United States, it may not exactly feel like the start of spring on March 20. Here, the first day of spring is expected to bring a snow storm.
Identifying and celebrating Spring
Ancient sites around the world were built to signal the start of spring. Around the year 1000 A.D., for example, the Maya built a pyramid in what is now Mexico’s Yucatan. It sits within an ancient city called Chichen Itza. On the spring equinox, the sunlight hits in such a way that makes the structure look like a snake. The Maya called this day “the return of the Sun serpent.”
Today, cultures around the world have their own ways of identifying and celebrating the arrival of spring.
In Japan, spring is marked with a huge cherry blossom festival, known as hanami. The tradition dates back more than a thousand years. People gather under the blooming trees to eat, drink tea, celebrate and enjoy the cherry blossoms, known as sakura in Japanese. Artists and poets celebrate the short-lived blooms as a symbol of beauty.
In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 cherry trees to the U.S. capital city of Washington, D.C. The gift was to honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan. The cherry blossoms have become a signal of the start of spring in Washington. The city’s National Cherry Blossom Festival draws millions of visitors every year.
For many countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, the beginning of spring also marks the beginning of a new year. The celebration is called Nowruz. The words "now" and "ruz" means “new day” in Farsi.
Countries along the ancient Silk Road trading path, including Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian nations, celebrate Nowruz.
In the past, Iran was the only country where Nowruz was an official holiday. But after countries gained their independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, many made Nowruz a national holiday, as well.
During Nowruz, people visit family members and friends and exchange gifts. Iranian families set up a “haft seen” display of seven special items that represent spring and new beginnings.
In Uzbekistan and other places in Central Asia, people watch wrestling events, horse races and a special horseback game called, in Uzbek, Kopkari. In this game, two teams of players on horseback try to get the body of a headless goat into a goal. A similar game is called buzkashi in Afghanistan and oghlak tartish in Kyrgyzstan and Uyghur-speaking areas.
Many in India and Nepal mark the arrival of spring with the Holi festival, known also as the festival of colors or festival of love.
People celebrate the festival by covering each other in -- you guessed it -- colors! Children especially enjoy the festival, as they get to throw colored powder and water-filled balloons at others.
Some say the festival comes from a story of the burning of the devil Holika. It represents the victory of good over evil, or the arrival of spring after a long, dark winter.
Others say the celebration was inspired by the story of two young lovers with different skin colors. Krishna, who has blue skin, was in love with Radha. So, he colored Radha with paint leading to the modern-day colorful festival of love.
People in Valencia, Spain, have their spring celebration called Las Fallas. It is a wild, five-day street festival involving fire.
The festival centers on the creation – and burning – of huge colorful statues made of wood, paper and plastic. The statues are meant to look like real people. Often, they are modeled after Spanish politicians or stars.
Valencian communities and organizations work all year to create their structures. As many as 700 of them are then placed throughout the city, with fireworks inside.
Las Fallas begins March 15, with events like bullfights, parades, and cooking and beauty competitions.
Then, at midnight on March 20, the city turns off all its streetlights and the statues are set on fire. This marks the end of the festival, and the beginning of spring.
I'm Ashley Thompson. And I'm Caty Weaver.
Hai Do wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
serpent - n. a large snake
pyramid - n. a very large structure built especially in ancient Egypt that has a square base and four triangular sides which form a point at the top
blooming - adj. producing flowers
display - n. an arrangement of objects intended to decorate or inform people about something
powder - n. a dry substance made up of very tiny pieces of something