HAPPY SPRING! Winter’s icy grip is slipping! The Spring Equinox is almost here. On March 20, half the day will be light and half day will be dark. It is one of two days of perfect balance between light and dark, and it is also the day when light wins over darkness. From now until the Summer Solstice, the hours of light will be longer than the hours of darkness. And, happily, it is the first day of Spring: Ostara.
Icicles are dripping everywhere from the eaves of our roofs, from tree branches. At the same time the Earth is awakening. Maple sap is beginning to flow in the veins of the trees. Icicles dangling from maple tree branches are sweet with maple sugar. The first birds are returning from where they wintered. The first plants begin to poke up through the snow, and buds are beginning to form on the trees. We grasp these first signs of Spring with excitement and joy, but it does not compare to the joy of our Ancestors. The return of Spring was the end of the death in winter, the return of life. It was hope. It was not merely an end to the unpleasantness of icy roads and bitter cold days, but the end of the risk of starvation. To our Ancestors, an sweet maple icicle never tasted so sweet!
So the signs of the return of Spring and the fertility of the Earth were of great importance. It is why they persist to the modern day: the return of the robin, the melting snow, the first buds, the first plants poking through the snow, the first eggs, the newest life, and more. Our Ancestors noted everything that marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring. The constellation of Orion is visible only in the winter. In Native American cultures like the Anishinaabe, this constellation was actually identified with Winter — Kabibonakka. As Spring approaches, Winter disappears even from the sky. Thus, Ostara celebrates the new life just starting to become visible. It corresponds to the energy and happiness of young children, when lives begin to take visible shape. This rebirth of life is celebrated with traditional symbols of emerging life, such as eggs.
Celebrating the Spring Equinox, Ostara
A lot of what we do as a family for Ostara is familiar to both Pagans and Christians. We decorate and fill baskets with small gifts and candies shaped like eggs, rabbits, and chicks to celebrate the sweetness of the gifts of Spring. We decorate and hide eggs to celebrate the promise of new life. We typically hide the eggs outside and spend a little time imagining our Ancestors going out and finding eggs in nature for the first “harvest” of the year, knowing that these eggs meant life for more than just the birds. We typically use natural dyes (described below) to connect more deeply with the process. The kids get to experiment with different colorful foods that they think might produce a color as well as a few staples that we know will work. The colors produced are typically more subtle and thus more closely resemble the eggs found in nature.
Here in Michigan, this is also the time when the maple trees are flowing with sap for making syrup and other sweet things. So we may do activities with the local nature center that annually makes syrup. Equinox pancakes made with half the circle light colored and half dark-colored are a lot of fun. One easy method is to make the pancake mix and then separate it into two bowls. Mix dark blue or green food coloring into one for the dark half. For each pancake, pour half light and half dark mix. This also works for cookies. Where you are, the first products of Spring may be different. We also plant seeds in flats or egg cartons. Over the weeks following Ostara, the kids watch the plants slowly emerge until they are planted outside at Beltane.
Because Easter grew out of the older Ostara celebrations (and other Spring holidays), many of the items needed to celebrate Ostara easy to find, such as baskets, colorful grass, egg dying kits, chocolate rabbits, marshmallow chicks, etc. Additionally, many of the “Easter” items explicitly celebrate Spring with the actual words of “Happy Spring”! Although Easter sometimes falls as much as a month later than Ostara, this is one time where the commercial tendency to put out Easter stuff as soon as Valentine’s Day is over actually works to our advantage.
Coloring Eggs Naturally
To color eggs, hard boil (or blow) the eggs ahead of time. Then, get large coffee mugs, one for each color. In separate saucepans, boil a small handful of the material for each color in a few cups of water. Pour out some of the colored water from each saucepan into a mug without pouring in the solid parts. If some of the solid material does go in, don’t worry. Sometimes having the actual solids can help with the dyeing. Add a tablespoon of vinegar and stir it in. Then dye the eggs by leaving each egg to soak for 10 to 30 minutes (longer is darker, of course). Note that only black rice quickly gives a deep color – we have sometimes left some eggs to soak overnight in the ‘fridge to give a strong color. This especially has worked well with red cabbage (blue color). When the mugs of dye cool to room temperature, warming them in the microwave helps. Another fun method is to place a little leaf on the egg, then put it in a section of cut pantyhose. Secure it with a rubber band. Then dye normally. This makes a white leaf on the dyed egg. Writing with clear wax (left over from Imbolc or a crayon) before dying leaves white writing on the eggs. Shredded crayons can be used for extra color. We usually color the eggs the day before Ostara so they can be hidden for the egg hunt.
- Black rice, Grey to Purple (very good natural dye, found in Asian markets)
- Black tea/coffee, Brown (moderately well)
- Red Onion, Green to Brown (moderate, can use the flaky outer skins)
- Red Cabbage, pale blue (moderate but light color)
- Beet juice (pale red – we haven’t had a lot of success with beets)
- Thai tea, light orange (light color, found in Asian markets)
- Turmeric, Yellow to Orange (Stains easily, only needs a teaspoon)
Others options shown:
- Leaf for pattern creation (center egg)
- Clear crayon for drawing pictures
- Shredded crayon for colorful textured eggs
- Store dyes: Pink (yes, I confess that occasionally we use them)
On the morning of the Spring Equinox, the kids are excited to run out and find the eggs, even if there is still snow on the ground. This can be tricky in years where it is very cold and we don’t want to accidentally freeze the eggs overnight, because we need to hide them right before they go out and not get caught! We also have a tradition of hiding the Ostara baskets inside the house, something that Jon’s family used to do when he was growing up. We also hide inside the house plastic eggs with stickers, candy or trinkets inside. To keep things fair, we color-code the plastic eggs, so that each child is looking for their own eggs, and we can hide the eggs of the younger kids in easier places than for the older ones. The eggs also contain hints about where the baskets are. Alternately, the baskets can be placed on the breakfast table the night before and magically filled overnight (something I fondly remember from my childhood). Either way, they emphasize the natural process of life beginning to emerge and allude to mystery of eggs laid in nests by birds, often unwitnessed by humans until after they are already in the nest.
This year as a special bonus, we have a full solar eclipse on Ostara. It will not be visible in North America, but for those who can see it, it will be extra special as it is by a moon when it is closest to Earth (a supermoon). This might be something to incorporate into your holiday, even if you cannot see it.
However you celebrate, blessings of the growing light to you and those you love —
Heather is a parent and a scientist raising her four children to explore the world through scientific understanding and with spiritual appreciation of the Universe. She has a Master of Science degree in Physics from Michigan State University, a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Bachelor of the Arts degree in English Literature, also from the University of Michigan. She teaches physics as an adjunct instructor at Delta College, runs the Math Mania program at a local elementary school, has worked at Dow Corning as an engineer and at NASA as an intern, and she has led science outreach workshops for K-12 students through joint programs between NASA and the University of Michigan. She is a naturalistic non-theist, whose faith has been shaped by her childhood within the Episcopal Church, her adult membership in the Unitarian Universalist church, and through Buddhist meditation. She has a passion for bringing science and spirituality to everyone in a fun way, both for her own family and for the wider community of the Earth. She is a co-author with Jon Cleland-Host of Elemental Birthdays: How to Bring Science into Every Party.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.