Spring Across America

By Michelle J. Hoppe


Whether it is the crocus poking its way through the snow, or the bloom of the peach tree, spring signifies the end of barren winter months--months of dormant grasses and brown twigs.  Slumber cedes to the sun, the warmth and the greenery of life.

With this re-birth comes celebrations and renewed hope.  Below are the American customs that celebrate spring.


MARDI GRAS or CARNIVAL (January 6 to Shrove Tuesday)

Mardi Gras in America had its beginnings in 19th century Mobile, Alabama.  It started out as a New Year's celebration, but eventually moved to begin on January 6, the Epiphany, or end of the Christmas season.  Revelers would then have an excuse to party until Shrove Tuesday, which signaled the beginning of Lent and fasting.

At first, Mardi Gras, or Carnival as it is also known, was celebrated mostly in the Deep South, in cities like Mobile and New Orleans.  It eventually spread across the United States, adopting elements from many different cultures--African, Caribbean, French, and Spanish, for example.  But with the advent of World Wars and the new working classes, few people could party from January 6 through Shrove Tuesday.  So now, in places like New Orleans, only small parades take place during that period of time.  The ultimate celebration comes during the long weekend of partying immediately preceding Ash Wednesday.  Parades, masks, street parties, and musicians have always been part of the Mardi Gras ritual, along with elegant costume balls at the hotels, the King of the Carnival, and his queens and their courts, and they still do. 

At the stroke of midnight on Shrove Tuesday, all revelry must cease, however, as it is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.


ST. PATRICK'S DAY (March 17)

Not just for the Irish, most Americans now join in the annual St. Patrick's Day celebrations in their town or city.  This American holiday dates from the 18th century when the day's festivities were more observances than celebrations.  Then the Great Famine hit Ireland, driving many families to the States.  With them, came their culture and beliefs.  Because of the influx of immigrants, the 1840s saw a dramatic increase in the participants and size of the St. Patrick's Day celebrations.

The day was unique in that it combined religious and political sentiments, along with the conviviality of good fellowship.  Local churches and cathedrals started the day with a Mass honoring the saint who drove both Druids and snakes from Ireland.  A parade down Main Street, U.S.A. followed.  The sizes of the parades grew in the 1850s and 1860s to include regiments, Societies, politicians and bands comprised mainly of Irish descendants.  They marched, proudly displaying the shamrock, a symbol of the church's Trinity. 

After the parade, toasts of whisky or beer were drunk to Ireland, and by the end of the day, everyone involved in the celebration could boast that they were just a wee bit Irish.


PASSOVER (date varies from year to year)

Passover is a commemoration of the escape of the Jews from bondage in Egypt.  It recalls the night the angel of the Lord traveled through Egypt, slaying the first-born of every family not displaying lamb's blood on its doorpost.  The angel was said to "pass over" these houses.  Passover reminds Jews of God's powerful presence, and that God rules the earth and His people.

At the center of the celebration is the Seder, or Passover meal.  The family gathers at the dinner table to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  The foods they eat symbolize the experiences of the Israelites in Egypt--lamb for the paschal sacrifice, unleavened bread because they did not have time to prepare with leaven, bitter herbs to commemorate the bitterness of slavery, haroset to represent the mortar with which they had to make bricks, parsley and a roasted egg to represent the renewal of life at Springtime, and salt water to represent the tears of the Israelite slaves. 

Passover is also observed at synagogue with prayers, psalms, readings and litanies.  It is a celebration of re-birth of a nation.


EASTER (date varies from year to year)

Because America is a country diverse in its people, so too, are its customs.  Yet amazingly, one regularly sees the same rites practiced from church to church, from people to people, from culture to culture.  Easter is no exception.  A symbol of re-birth, it celebrates the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. 

If one item could be chosen as a symbol of this re-birth, it is the egg.  Universal in its meaning, it signifies, like spring, the beginning of new life. 

Easter is preceded by a forty-day period of fast known as Lent.  Begun on Ash Wednesday, the fasting lasts through Holy Saturday.  Collectively, the week preceding Easter is known as Holy Week.  These are the days and what they signify--Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, observes Jesus' ride into Jerusalem before his crucifixion.  Maundy, or Holy, Thursday is the day of the Last Supper when Jesus ate with his disciples.  Good Friday is the day Jesus was crucified.  It is traditional to bake Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday, as they are marked with the cross upon which Jesus died.

Holy Saturday includes the blessing and lighting of the tall paschal candle.  It symbolizes Christ's triumph over death.  Holy Saturday is also the traditional day for the baptism of new church members.

Easter Sunday is the celebration of the Resurrection, and is the most important of all Christian holidays.  Easter Sunday has not always been widely celebrated in America.  Early Puritans and Protestants had little use for celebrations.  In Massachusetts, the Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas, and played down Easter as much as possible. 

It wasn't until after the Civil War when the nation needed to look forward to renewal and hope that Easter began to be celebrated in the European tradition.  It remains a major religious and secular celebration.

Other customs associated with Easter include the egg--a symbol of re-birth, the Easter rabbit (originally the Easter hare from Europe), new clothing, and the eating of ham. 


ARBOR DAY  (Date varies from state to state)

Arbor Day is a relatively new holiday, having first begun in Nebraska in April, 1872.  Its main purpose is conservation.  It is a day dedicated to trees and their usefulness.  J. Sterling Morton, originator of Arbor Day, believed in looking to the future of the nation.  He proposed the planting of trees for special occasions such as visiting dignitaries and the construction of new buildings.  In 1872, he suggested an annual tree-planting day, with prizes given to the individuals and counties responsible for planting the most tress on that day.  Thus began Arbor Day, that first year recording over one million trees planted in Nebraska.

Nebraska proclaimed the first official Arbor Day, which would be recognized on the second Wednesday of April.  Kansas, Tennessee, Minnesota and Ohio soon followed Nebraska's example.  School children, civic organizations and state agencies joined in the efforts. 

Arbor Day eventually became a national holiday, and is celebrated in every state except Alaska.  The dates of observation differ between states, West Virginia unique in that it has two dates--one in the spring and another in the fall.  Their doctrines remain the same, however, the conservation of the land through the planting of trees. 


MAY DAY (May 1)

May Day, a celebration of love and romance, was practiced more widely in the South than it was in the Puritan North.  It signified the coming of spring, and therefore flowers figured into its rites.  Villages erected Maypoles and decorated them with blossoms and ribbons.  There would then be dancing and singing around the Maypole. 

Throughout the day, girls would breathlessly await the arrival of a flower-filled basket on their porch.  Secret admirers would deliver them while nobody was looking, knock on the door, and then run away.  The girls were left wondering as to whom her gift-giver may have been.

The day would end with a community dance, where the May Day Queen and her court presided over the festivities.


MOTHER'S DAY (Second Sunday in May)

Mother's Day was born of a dream.  Anna Jarvis had often heard her mother wishing for "someone, sometime, to establish a memorial mother's day for mothers living and dead." 

Ann Reeves Jarvis had herself been an exemplary role model.  She organized Friendship Clubs to combat the perils of rural life, nursed Union troops during the Civil War, and organized community festivities.

The first Mother's Day was celebrated in Grafton, West Virginia on May 12, 1907 as a memorial service for Ann Reeves Jarvis.  It was a day to "revive the dormant love and filial gratitude we owe to those who gave us birth."

Throughout the following year, Anna Jarvis campaigned for national observance of the day.  While she wasn't immediately successful, by 1910, forty-five states had joined in recognizing the holiday.  Then, in 1914, Congress passed a joint resolution to set aside the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.  To this day, we observe this celebration of life.


Of all the holidays in the spring season, one theme keeps recurring above all others--that of life.  Whether it be renewal, new lives, or re-birth, Spring is a celebration of beginnings, just as Spring is the season of beginnings.



The Book of American Traditions by Emyl Jenkins, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1996

Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays by Robert J. Myers, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972


Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.



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