Welcome to spring, season of love and hope!
Shouldn’t New Year's Day be on the first day of spring? After all, it is the season of new beginnings – and is proven to be a time when we are generally happier and at our most energetic.
Nature is on the move. Green shoots are pushing up through the soil, buds are opening on bare trees. The world is coming back to life. It has been a long and difficult winter for many in the Northern Hemisphere. But hope is here and spring has finally arrived.
The season began officially at 9:37am on Saturday during the vernal equinox. For a fleeting moment, day and night were roughly equal lengths everywhere on Earth. North of the equator, the days are now longer. And sensing the increased light, nature has exploded into life.
Humans are not immune to spring fever. A cocktail of hormones is changing our behaviour as the weather improves. Increased sunlight triggers serotonin, adjusting our biological clock and boosting our mood. As we become more active, endorphins give us a sense of euphoria. The novelty of springtime may also give us a dopamine hit, the pleasure hormone that makes us fall in love.
With this renewed energy and sunny outlook, it may feel like the perfect time to start something new. “Spring is the time of plans and projects", wrote Russian author Leo Tolstoy. And psychologist Tim Bono agrees: “You don’t plant new seeds in January,” but spring is fertile ground “to grow and develop”.
And many cultures throughout history have celebrated the new year in spring. Around 2000BC, the ancient Babylonians paraded statues of their gods through the cities to mark the start of the sowing season. In modern Thailand, revellers celebrate with the “world’s biggest water fight”. And 300 million people around the world on Saturday observed Persian New Year.
The ancient Romans were the first to move the new year from March to January. Introduced in 46BC, the Julian calendar began with the worship of the two-faced god Janus, looking back at the old and ahead to the new. The calendar survived long after the fall of the Roman Empire, but medieval Christians abandoned its pagan new year rites.
In their place, spring made a comeback. New Year was celebrated on March 25, Lady Day. In medieval England, this was a day for settling financial debts – the origin of the British tax year. And although spring was in the air, this was not a time for feasting as the new year fell in the middle of Lent.
Meanwhile, the increasingly inaccurate Julian calendar had drifted out of step with the seasons. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII shaved 11 days off the year and returned New Year to 1 January. But Protestant countries rejected these changes and continued to celebrate new year in March until 1752, when Britain finally adopted the Gregorian Calendar.
Archaeologist Francis Pryor says our farming ancestors were “keenly aware” of the importance of the sun and the significance of spring. Their survival depended on it. But so does our happiness and well being. “Our bodies have evolved to be expecting a bright light cue”, says neuroscientist Stuart Peirson. Which gives us all the more reason to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Should New Year’s Day be the first day of spring?
Some say no, leave New Year’s Day where it is. January is a quieter time, perfect for making resolutions and reflecting on the past and the future. Spring is its own celebration, full of activity and life. But after the holiday season, and with spring far in the future, it is helpful to have the ritual of a new year to lift our spirits and keep us going.
Others say yes, spring is the start of the year. Winter is a time for hunkering down and hibernating inside. New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep because January is the hardest month to change our habits. The days are short and the weather is bad. But on the first day of spring, we have nature on our side and everything feels possible.
- Which is your favourite season and why?
- Are seasonal festivals still relevant in the modern world?
- Design a poster inviting people to your own spring festival. How will you celebrate?
- Research the origins and customs of a spring festival (historical or contemporary) and present your findings to the class.
Some People Say...
“The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.”Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813 – 1897), American writer
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that calenders are an imperfect system for dividing time. A true solar year, from one vernal equinox to the next, takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. In order to catch up with the seasons, the Julian calendar added an extra day every four years. By the 16th Century, these leap years had overcompensated by 10 days. The modern Gregorian calendar is an improvement, but by 4909 it will be one day ahead of the solar year.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is whether the calendar needs to fit with the seasons. The Jewish and Islamic calendars use lunar months to date festivals, and this is considered more important than observing the winter solstice or spring equinox. Others argue the Gregorian calendar is an untidy mess, with months of different lengths. The French Revolution introduced an orderly alternative, with 12 months of 30 days each and 10 days in every week. But this system only lasted 12 years.
- Vernal equinox
- Also called the spring equinox, it is caused by the Earth’s tilt on its axis as it orbits the sun.
- Spring fever
- A restless sense of excitement. Historically, people actually suffered from weakness and swollen joints, a “Spring Disease” caused by a lack of vitamin C during the winter months.
- Sunlight affects our circadian rhythms, the biological clock which regulates our sleep cycles.
- Persian New Year
- Nowruz means “new day” in Persian. Rituals include the Haft-sin table of seven symbolic objects and fire-jumping on Charshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before New Year.
- Julian calendar
- Named after the Roman leader Julius Caesar, the calendar is still used by parts of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
- January is named after the god of doorways and archways, beginnings and endings. The start of every day, month and year were also sacred to him.
- Lady Day
- The Feast of the Annunciation commemorates the day the Virgin Mary learnt from the Archangel Gabriel that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ.
- The religious period of fasting coincides with the “famine months” at the end of winter when the fields were empty and the remaining stores had to last until spring.