Tides – Spring Customs

In the US, the vernal equinox is referred to as the first day of spring—and similarly with the other three cardinal points of the year. But this is an American innovation; traditionally, they are the high points of the seasons, not their beginnings. So in terms of the ancient Germanic calendars, we should think of spring as the time after the first furrow is cut when trees and plants begin to grow again, when the animals have their young, and when the frosts cease and the snow melts. Almost all of our evidence for our forefathers’ religious observances in this season is expressed in Christian terms; references in texts are to the carnival and the Christian season of Lent that follows it. (In German, Lenz is an archaic/poetic word for springtime.) Lent lasts 40 days, so mid to late February and March is the timespan referred to in these terms.

Bede says that the Anglo-Saxon month equivalent to March was Hreðmónaþ, “named from their goddess Hreþa, to whom they sacrificed in this month.” I have written elsewhere that I think Hreða is a version of Eorþe and thus another name of the goddess known in Old Norse as Jörð—Earth. However, we don’t know anything about the nature of the sacrifices. Bede says cakes were offered in the preceding month. Plough Monday—the tradition of young men taking a plough around and demanding gifts—is associated with the first furrow and Blessing of the Plough, at the very beginning of spring or before, and in fact is currently done on the first Monday after Twelfth Night. One stubborn survival in English custom that might give us a clue to what was done in Hreðmónaþ is reverence for wells and springs. Early Church texts list offering at wells, springs, and rivers as punishable backsliding into heathenry. England is full of “holy well” placenames and legends. And there is the custom of well dressing: a wooden frame packed with moist clay (with salt mixed in) is erected around the superstructure of the well, a drawing is transferred onto it from a paper guide, and flower petals and other predominantly natural materials are packed into it with the guidance of a paper design to make a brightly colored picture. This is usually Christian (many villages associate dressing the well with giving thanks for a good water source enabling them to survive the time of the Black Death), and the custom is now highly localized (closely associated with the Peak District of Derbyshire), but it was supposedly revived in the fourteenth century by the villagers of Tissington, and a carnival often follows the church service held after the well is dressed. This is exactly the kind of thing we might suppose the Anglo-Saxons did in springtime, particularly since carnivals are usually pre-Lenten celebrations; however, well dressing season is May Day through September, i.e. summer. I suspect it has been moved to suit its modern Christian focus, or because of the worsening of the English climate since Anglo-Saxon times.

Carnival is usually associated with Mediterranean cultures, but under the name of Fasching, it is very important in German-speaking areas. In fact rather than immediately preceding Lent and taking place in the week before Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) as carnival generally does, in Germany, Fasching season generally starts on November 11; the older custom that survives in southwestern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland has it starting on Epiphany, i.e.: after Yule. The carnival processions in different places take place at different times during this extended span of time, which in some places is called the “fifth season.” In local folk traditions, above all in the south, Perht or Holda can appear, alone or at the head of the Wild Hunt, during the Twelve Nights of Yule or during the Fasching season, and the ancient custom of Perchtenlaufen involves masked men running through the village and jumping as high as they can over the local spring or well to bring fertility. (There were originally several traditional “Perchten” figures with prescribed costumes, as well as a division into Schiachperchten [“dark” Perchten, in Bavarian dialect] and Schönperchten [“beautiful” Perchten].) This is clearly a Fasching/carnival rite associated with Perht/Holda as one of our goddesses, although today it survives mostly for tourism and tends to take place around Epiphany rather than just before Lent. The jumping over springs in particular links it to the English reverence for wells—and to a later time of year when the streams are not frozen.

So we have two ideas for how to celebrate the spring season as a holy tide: carnivalesque masked frolics involving scary masks and leaping, and offerings at and decoration of wells and springs.

Sites to look at:

German Wikipedia entry on Perchten
German Wikipedia entry on Fasching
Wikipedia entry on Well Dressing
Short history of Well Dressing
Well Dressing in Derbyshire by Walter R. Timperley
Bede’s statement about Hreðmónaþ, from Arlea Hunt-Anschutz’s goddesses pages