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Travel

Rites of Spring: fascinating springtime rituals from around the world

@SamWKemp

Spring has been giving us cause to celebrate for thousands of years – and no wonder. It’s a period of rebirth, of new life and new possibilities. With the passing of winter, there’s a sense that life begins again. Here you’ll find a selection of curious, fascinating, and downright bizarre springtime rituals from Scotland to Japan. Some are ancient, some are modern pretending to be ancient, and others are an utter mystery. What they all have in common is that they continue to unite communities year after year.

But why the cause for celebration? Well, that depends on your beliefs, but it seems to have something to do with one of two things: sex or death. In Greek mythology, phallophoric festivals (basically parading giant penises through the streets) were held to mark the return of Persephone from the underworld.

Later, in ancient Rome, the lengthening of the days were marked by animal sacrifice in celebration of Attis, a fertility God who shares many traits with The Greeks’ Aphrodite, but also the Norse God Freya and the African Goddes Oshun, all of whom are honoured in the spring.

While the Christian holiday of Easter features less penis waving than ancient Greek fertility festivals, it serves the same basic function: to commemorate resurrection and mark the reemergence of life against all odds. Our connection with the seasons might have drifted in recent centuries, but these seven festivals are keeping the spirit of spring alive.

Spring rituals from around the world:

Kanamara Matsuri, Japan

If you happen to find yourself in Kawasaki on the first Sunday of April, you’ll probably spot a penis or two. Why? Kanamara Matsuri of course. On that day, the city is flooded with phallic-themed processions. And it doesn’t stop there: everything has to be penis-shaped on Kanamara Matsuri, including confectionery.

The festival dates back to the Edo period when locals would gather around the Kanayama Shrine of Kanayama-hiko and the goddess Kanayama, both of whom were revered by local sex workers seeking protection from sexual disease and mothers hoping for easy childbirth. These days, the festival is one of the most colourful modern fertility festivals anywhere in the world.

Jack In the Green, England

The ‘Green Man’ is one of the most ubiquitous folkloric icons in European folklore. The Jack In The Green tradition, in which a local person is encased in an entangled garland of foliage, dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries when it became an essential feature of May Day celebrations.

Jack In The Green was traditionally a bacchanalian character with a reputation for subversive and bawdy behaviour, which is presumably why the Victorians tried so hard to get rid of him. These days, Jack In The Green is more alive than ever and can be spotted at traditional May Day processions accompanied by dancers, musicians and perenially unnerving mummers – troupes of locals adorned with animal masks and bent on mischief.

Walpurgis Night, Northern Europe and Scandinavia

Fire is a central aspect of many European spring festivals. Take the tradition of Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night, which takes its name from St. Walpurga, a Frankish missionary whose Saint Day falls at the tail end of April. Beyond that, Walpurgis Night is a pretty pagan affair, which began life as a ritual to ward off witches and has now been reappropriated and transformed into a celebration of magic and sorcery.

All over Northern Europe and Scandinavia, Walpurgis Night is celebrated by the lighting of bonfires, a symbol of rebirth and renewal. Occasionally, hordes will gather dressed as witches. Other times, the festival is a more insular venture, with families hanging blessed sprigs of foliage from houses and barns to ward off evil spirits. Or they might leave pieces of ankenschnitt, pieces of bread spread with butter and honey, as an offering for the demonic hell hounds that wander the fields come April 30th.

Nagol Festival, Pentecost Island

Every Saturday between April and June, men of all ages from Pentecost Island climb to the top of a 20-30 metre-high wooden structure and throw themselves over the edge. The Nagol or ‘Land Diving’ Festival is a celebration of the yam season and a male fertility ritual. Deaths are common.

Construction of the tower takes five weeks using materials from the forest. Divers must source the vines themselves, which they will later link around their ankles just before they soar. At the bottom – if they make it to the bottom safely – they are greeted by excited villagers stomping their feet in celebration, eager to watch the next diver.

Cheese Rolling, England

Held on an especially steep and uneven hill in Gloucestershire, the yearly Coppers Hill Cheese-Rolling Competition sees people from all around the world gather to chase a wheel of Double Gloucester down a 200-yard hill

That cheese can reach speeds of up to 70mph, so, as you can imagine, the competition frequently results in bruised knees and sprained ankles. That doesn’t seem to have done anything to quench enthusiasm for the spring tradition, which is believed to be around 600 years old.

Whuppity Scoorie, Scotland

Held on March 1st every year, the wonderfully named Whuppity Scoorie marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. After four months of silence, the church bells at Lanark parish church begin ringing at exactly six p.m. As they toll, a procession of local children circles the church three times, dangling pieces of string with balls of scrunched-up paper on the end. Once the final lap has finished, the children then begin battering each other with their paper maces while their parents toss pennies on the ground.

Many believe that the tradition began when Scotland was still a pagan country. The idea was to make a large amount of noise to ward off evil spirits, something reflected in the English tradition of ‘wassailing’. Others claim that the Whuppity Scoorie stems from an English soldier who sought sanctuary from William Wallace and his soldiers and was forced to circle the church three times before the doors were opened.