Celebrating Spring Around the World
It seems we’ve waited extra long this past year for a feeling of renewal, and so I’m delighted to highlight springy things around the world.
Local foods, and food-related activities, are a start, even if you don’t go farther than your local farmers market and meals focused on spring delights such as fiddlehead ferns, lamb, shad roe, asparagus and rhubarb. Bring the kids, and find a farm and pick peas or strawberries, and tap maple syrup.
I remember a May along the Rhine, gorging on Germany’s beloved white asparagus (spargle) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Pale and buttery, sprinkled with bread crumbs, the spears do look creepy, like limp white fingers, but I never tired of them. Germans refer to spargel as “white gold” and pay more per kilo than for meat.
Food festivals celebrate bacon in Sacramento and herring in Denmark; there’s a Dumpling Festival in Hong Kong with a Dragon Boat Race. But my fave food festival is Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling, in England, where revelers tumble down a hill, following a nine-pound round of Double Gloucester. Whoever nabs it, wins it.
Spring flowers! Cherry blossoms bloom in Washington D.C. from late March, not just around the Tidal Basin, but also at Hains Point Loop Trail, 4.4 miles with waterfront backdrops of the Potomac River, Anacostia River and Washington Channel. In Japan, when the blossoms, (sakura), arrive, the Japanese picnic and party under the trees (hanami), and eat pickled cherry blossom leaves. At the Koedo Kawagoe Spring Festival, there’s folk dancing and kimono shows.
Wildflowers bloom along roadsides, fields of yellow rapeseed spread across hills, and driving country roads can be delighfully colorful. Gardens around the world, from Monet’s in Giverny, France to Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island near Vancouver, are at their loveliest.
Keukenhof, outside of Amsterdam is rightfully known as the most beautiful spring garden in the world. over seven million spring blooms on 79 acres. The best time to visit is late April, early May, when just about everything is blooming. And just outside, ribbons of candy-colored tulips fill the fields.
And then there are the solemn to raucous religious spring festivals, celebrating cleansing or rebirth, and many have turned into fun experiences. (Also, most are held outdoors, which makes it safer this spring.)
Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival, and celebrations in New York and Savannah, Georgia rival those in Ireland. Customary traditions include wearing green clothing (signs of spring!) and shamrocks (Saint Patrick used them to explain the Holy Trinity). Parades, and lively music and dancing (known as a ceilidh) are popular. Feasting and whiskey abound, as Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking are officially lifted for the day
Rivers turn green in Chicago, Tampa and San Antonio. In Savannah when the river didn’t stay green, they turned the fountains green. And in Charlotte, North Carolina at a 5k run, not only is the river green, but people can be doused with green, too.
Holi Festival duringFebruary/March in areas with large Hindu populations, uses color to celebrate good over evil. At a nighttime bonfire, people sing and dance . The next day is the fun part, the carnival of colors. Participants wear white and then throw dye powder, squirt water guns and colored water-filled balloons, uniting friends and foes, rich and poor, children and big kids at heart in a happy, colorful mess.
What color is to Holi, water is to Songkran. The word comes from the Sanskrit word for “astrological passage” meaning a change or transformation, and refers to the traditional Buddhist New Year celebrated shortly after the spring equinox.
Songkran is celebrated as the traditional New Year’s Day in parts of India, China, and much of Southeast Asia. Mornings often start at Buddhist temples, offering food to the monks. Water is often poured on statues of the Buddha, young people, and elders in a symbolic purification ritual.
Family members return home to pay tribute to their ancestors. They clean their houses, and everyone dresses up. Some regions host traditional parades and beauty contests, while others set off firecrackers on April 13 to ward off bad luck in the New Year.
Songkran is often called “Water Day,” and Thailand hosts the most notorious water fight of all. Thais still visit their local monastery, but Songkran has morphed into revelry across the kingdom.
In Chiang Mai, streets are closed to traffic and packed with young people for the world’s biggest water fight. Water balloons, water guns and even elephants’ trunks will get you drenched. The ultimate in wet and wild.
Las Fallas, a traditional Spanish celebration honoring St. Joseph, centers around giant puppets (fallas) made of paper mache, wood and wax. Las Fallas officially begins March 1 with fireworks (mascletà) at 2 p.m., and continues every day through March 19. You’ll find music, decorations, firecrackers, parades with residents in traditional costumes, and paella in every restaurant. On the final day, after a massive bonfire and fireworks, all the fallas are set alight in grand blazes.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) in March/April in Seville is a spectacular Easter festivity. Intricately crafted religious statues are paraded through the streets, with processions of brotherhoods in traditional robes with pointed, vaguely sinister-looking hoods. The atmosphere is sombre, but there’s plenty of feasting.
A similar ceremony is held in Antigua Guatemala, perhaps the most beautiful of all. Within a 24-hour span, layers of sand are placed on Antigua’s cobblestone streets and then covered with multi-colored sawdust, decorations, pine needles, flowers, and other plants, creating exquisite natural carpets called alfombras. They scatter as participants in purple robes shuffle along the route.
Here are a few non–religious festivals that I especially like for their quirky character and local traditions.
Queen’s Day in the Netherlands commemorated Queen Beatrix’s birth even though her Royal Highness was born in January.
With the crowning of her son, Willem-Alexander, the holiday became King’s Day, or Koningsdag, and is celebrated on April 27 (which conveniently is his birthday). The official ceremony is followed by sporting competitions, feasting and drinking in orange attire, and a massive, country-wide flea market lets you buy yourself a present.
At Sechselauten (“Sexaloyton”), celebrated in Zurich, Switzerland, a nearly 12-foot-tall creature called the Boogg is burned to represent the end of winter. On April 20, ringing church bells, parades, and celebrations accompany the six o’clock burning of the Boogg, and according to locals, the faster the Boogg’s head explodes, the better the summer will be. (Kind of like Groundhog Day, using a shadow as a prediction of winter.) Processions and parties follow, and my favorite part comes at the end: sausages grilled on the burning embers of the Boogg’s pyre.
Lea Lane is an award-winning writer and communicator, author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries, and Travel Tales I Couldn't Put in the Guidebooks, available at Amazon as print and Kindle eBook. She writes for magazines, newspapers and on websites, including Forbes.com, The New York Times, Salon, and the Daily Beast.
Lea's travel podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane, is available wherever you listen to podcasts. She interviews passionate travelers and travel experts around the world.
She's authored eight books (including Solo Traveler, finalist for best travel book of the year from the North American Travel Journalists Association). She has contributed to dozens of other books, from encyclopedias to guidebooks. Lea wrote a column called "Going It Alone," for Gannett Newspapers, and was managing editor of "Travel Smart" newsletter. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.
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