From skies full of lanterns for Buddhist New Year to brightly colored eggs in Easter baskets, communities around the world celebrate spring in a myriad of ways. Spring has always been a symbol of life, of new growth, hope, and a shift from the dark of winter to the light of a new season. With this new season comes a chance for people of all backgrounds, religions, and cultures to step into the warmth of spring and celebrate the coming months of sunshine and new opportunities.
One of the most popular holidays of the spring season is Easter, but there are many other events celebrated by people of all faiths and cultures that are held to usher out the winter months and welcome springtime. In fact, Christian Easter is just one among dozens of festivals and religious celebrations that crown the first months of spring.
To many people, Easter means rainbow dyed eggs, chocolate candies, jelly beans, and baskets of sweets and cards. The world, especially the United States, has embraced Easter with aisles and aisles of toys and candy in nearly every American supermarket. These products are a large part of the day, but the influence of Easter extends far beyond what can be bought in a store. It is a time for families and friends to gather for a day of joy. For those who identify as Christian, Easter is the most important day of the church year as it is a symbol of all Christians being saved from sin. Catholic and Protestant churches often adorn their church buildings with white flowers and decorations, and many hold church services throughout Easter Sunday. Easter vigil services are common on Saturday night to welcome Sunday, as well as sunrise services at dawn. The rising of the sun mirrors the rising of the congregation’s spirits on such a holy day.
Although Easter is a predominantly Christian holiday, it is also recognized by other religions. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon Church, celebrates the rising of Jesus, as does the Unitarian Universalist church. These are very different faiths than Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, and other Christian churches, but all share Easter Sunday. Despite shared holy days, Easter traditions and even the meaning of the day are very different depending on one’s religion. The Unitarian Church has almost 200,000 members in the United States alone, however this faith community remains relatively unknown. It is a small community compared to over 200 million Christians in the country, but holds a set of interesting beliefs.
While most Christians believe in one God in three persons, Unitarians believe in the same God as one entity, with more of a focus on spirituality and human connection to nature. Most do celebrate Easter, though usually for three central purposes. Some believe that the Christian purpose of Easter is a myth, but still celebrate the symbolic triumph of the day. Others believe that the spirit of Jesus did in fact pass into his followers when he died, and still others celebrate Easter as a festival of spring, a chance to celebrate the natural world and focus on the earthly transition to a new season. Reverend Amy Morgenstern, the Parish minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, clarified, “Most UU (Unitarian Universalist) members have various beliefs, and to me, as someone who grew up Jewish, it’s just an incredibly rich story, the fact that we die and we have to grapple with this, and do we have a life after this? Do we join together after death? This gives our life more meaning seeing as we don’t live forever.”
Morgenstern explained how Easter highlights some of her congregation’s beliefs, saying, “A couple of key things about us come into play with the holiday celebrations of last week. The universalist in our name has come to mean that we draw on many traditions in the search for truth and wisdom and guidance. To live a good meaningful life, we kind of think we need all the help we can get. We believe that all human religions have something to offer, and nature and science and poetry and art have something to offer; this doesnt make us unique, but we don’t have any one dogma or tradition. The tradition we came out of 200 years ago, Christianity, that’s not our only source. So in a congregation you might have Passover celebrations as well as Easter, and we have a May Day celebration in a few weeks, which is pretty pagan.”
Easter may be the most obviously celebrated spring celebration, but it is hardly the only holiday at the time. The festival of Holi occurs at the beginning of spring, usually early April. Holi is a Hindu holiday that celebrates the new energy of the spring season, as well as the god Vishnu, who is the protector and preserver of the world. This festival is sometimes recognized as the Hindu holiday closest in spirit to Valentine’s Day, and people celebrate by smearing paint on each other and throwing colored powder into the air and at one another. It is a religious day, but celebrations have become less religious and more about spending time with one’s community.
This year, Holi at Stanford was on Saturday, April 8 and 9 at the Sandhill Fields and was a huge success. Tickets sold out within days for the colorful event, which included over 5,000 pounds of food-grade colored powder that is the signature feature of the celebration. Holi is celebrated by most Hindus, but also by people of other faiths such as Jains and some Buddhists. Traditionally, some Sikhs have recognized the holy day as well, although its historic texts reference the holiday as Hola.
Yet another prominent spring holiday is Buddhist New Year. There are three main traditions of Buddhism; Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Each division holds the same core beliefs, the most popular form being Mahayana which is more of an umbrella term for different school of Buddhist thought. Theravada Buddhism is the most traditional form, and is most prevalent in Southeast Asia. Its beliefs are closer to the original Indian form of Buddhism than other sects, and many monks in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand uphold these orthodox traditions, especially during Theravada New Year. This holiday typically occurs in mid-to-late April, whereas Mahayana New year is usually in early January.
There are over 100 million Theravada Buddhists throughout the world, and celebrations of their New Year take place over the first few days after the first full moon in April. Monks often worship with natural elements of the Earth such as sand and water. Each grain of sand is a symbol of a wrongdoing, and as water washes away the sand, so do Buddhists cleanse their mind of these wrongs and reflect on their karma. Monks and Buddhists spend New Year’s Day focusing on Buddha’s birth and life and wishing others well in the new season. Despite the obvious differences between Buddhist New Year and Easter, the Unitarian church offers a rare place where these traditions overlap seamlessly. Morgenstern noted, “In our congregation, there seem to be a lot of Buddhist followers, and we have a Buddhist meditation group on Saturdays. The idea is we don’t all come from the same place but we seem to overlap enough and seem to share our paths and practices with each other enough to join together.”
It is a celebration of hope and life, a time to shake off the ills of the past year and right the wrongs of the winter months. Spring has long been hailed as a season of happiness and new life, and a chance for people of all faiths to give thanks and express their joy at the fresh start that spring offers. Each culture recognizes this time in different ways, and each religion worships different gods and holds different beliefs. However, the pure celebration of spring’s joy is an opportunity for anyone, anywhere, to step into a new season with a light heart and a smile. Morgenstern added that “sometimes we don’t talk enough about our differences because we all want to get along, and it takes work to get though these things but for me it’s exciting to see this community where there are such drastic religious differences. Maybe we can all learn from one another because we have so much in common and we can carry this into the world.”