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Rites of spring

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Yesterday marked the official arrival of spring, the vernal equinox — surely one of the most welcome calendar dates in the year. Weather has nothing to do with it. We have certainly not escaped from winter on March 21. On this date in 1967 New York had nearly 10 inches of snow, and again, in 2014, the last spiteful gesture of winter hit us on tax day, which made it even worse. Mark Twain in 1876 remarked: "In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six kinds of weather in four and twenty hours." So, we can’t relax too soon.

The vernal equinox, an accidental product of the wobbly progress of our planet around the sun, is not so much a meteorological comfort as a psychological one. It lifts the weight of winter gloom and allows us to peer ahead to the possibility of summer and a new life. Early spring is a long-drawn out time of preparation and anticipation. We can't wait for summer to arrive, and many don't wait. There have already been some lovely spring-like days and we all go a bit crazy when that happens, washing cars for the first time in months, rushing to the chilly beaches, and wearing premature shorts revealing limbs that have been and should be concealed. Students on spring break have already squeezed in a few early beach days down in Florida or Cancun at vast expense to their parents.

Our ancestors greeted spring with happy orgies of feasting and drinking. This was the most significant season of the year. In medieval times, the correct thing to do at the vernal equinox was to get up early in the morning and roll around naked in the dew. Most of the people who practiced this habit died of pneumonia a long time ago. In backward nations like Britain, the ancient spring ceremony of dancing around a Maypole covered in flowers still lives on. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky composed a controversial ballet, “The Rite of Spring,” in which a wild, primitive celebration ended with a human sacrifice.

We still have some essential springtime rituals, although human sacrifice is now illegal in many states. Farmers and gardeners begin their mysterious and muddy tasks, pharmacies set up big displays of insect repellant and allergy medications and love, like pollen, is in the air, which means that the wedding industry is gearing up for its big season. The garden furniture is hauled out and looks more tired and dilapidated than you remember. So does your own body when you look at it in the cruel sunlight. This is the time when last year's forgotten diet and exercise regimes are reluctantly remembered. Folks can be seen jogging or walking rather slowly around the suburbs, and furtively buying healthy foods. It’s a whole new lifestyle and it takes a little time to lose those winter reflexes: the automatic cringe when opening the front door, the subconscious awareness of the heating bill when the temperature drops, and the anxious eye on the weather map. But we can make the adjustment, we’ve done it before, and it’s worth it, every spring, every year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.