Festival Friday: Spring Has Sprung, The Grass Has Riz

Happy spring!

After the warmest winter on record (though it sure didn’t feel like it), spring has come, and with spring comes a whole raft of springtime celebrations.

Regardless of whether you ascribe to the One Big Religion/Many Variants Theory, these celebrations sure look like the same celebration with different details and under different names. At any rate, they’re all interesting and definitely worth checking out, vicariously if not in person.

Higan: Also known as Ohigan (no Irish jokes, please), this Buddhist festival celebrates the Spring Equinox and encourages Buddhists to re-examine their faith and rededicate themselves to the quest for enlightenment. There aren’t many celebrations per se associated with Higan, though many Japanese return to their ancestral homes to pay their respects to past generations. Also, most businesses in Japan are closed over the week-long holiday – something to remember if you’re going to be traveling in Japan next week.

Nyepi: The most important holiday in Bali, Nyepi is a new-year’s celebration that recognizes the importance of the balance of nature – a big deal in Bali, where nature out of balance can mean typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. The celebration actually starts three days before the equinox, when statues of the local gods are taken out of the temples and brought down to the river for cleaning and cleansing by the god Baruna. One day before Nyepi villages purge themselves of evil spirits in a spectacular carnival. Revelers put on ogoh-ogoh masks representing the spirits and dance and sing into the night. The next day the masks are burned, destroying the evil spirits inside. Think of witches being burned at the stake, but without the mess. The next day, Nyepi, is a rest day; the day after, Ngembak Geni, is a tradition-filled day of forgiveness.

Tourists are welcome to visit Bali during Nyepi and witness the celebrations. Be prepared to observe Nyepi and Ngembak Geni; lay low, and don’t expect a lot of services either day. However, the experience of the days leading up to Nyepi is worth the quietude of the day itself.

Nowruz: It makes sense for a new year to start in spring, the traditional beginning of life, and that’s the logic behind Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Since the fifth century B.C.E., people in central Asia and the Middle East have celebrated this holiday, which began as a celebration honoring the Persian emperor. Now it’s a more secular holiday, though Zoroastrians, Sufi Muslims, Bektashis, Ismailis, Alawites, Alevis, Babis and Bahá’ís have special Nowruz celebrations that involve cleaning the house and setting a special table with a clean white cloth, plants grown from seeds in anticipation of the day, an incense burner, a bowl of goldfish, and decorated eggs. The celebration itself features brightly costumed dancers, special foods, and games – including a variation of polo played with a dead goat.

In theory Nowruz is the best time of the year to visit Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, and other countries in the region. In practice travel restrictions – most of them more than prudent – make it hard for American tourists to see much of a traditional Nowruz this year. Oh, well; maybe next year.

Qing Ming: Also known as the Pure Brightness Festival, this Chinese festival resembles Higan, in the sense that it celebrates the changing seasons and honored ancestors, and Nowruz, since it involves cleaning. Tombs are swept and decorated with flowers. Gifts of food are left at the newly cleaned tombs, and paper money and incense are burned in front of graves. There are ritual foods and drinks as well, especially yummy-sounding qingtuan, green rice-and-barley-grass dumplings.

Fortunately, there’s a brighter side to Qing Ming. It’s a reason for people to get outside, which they do. Trees are planted and kites are flown – even at night, when the small lanterns attached to the kits fill the sky with a second layer of stars.

Qing Ming is a great time to visit China, Taiwan, and other southeast Asian countries with large Chinese populations, like Malaysia and Singapore. And hey: Singapore Airlines is one of the world’s best. There you go.

Spring-Equinox Celebration: In Teotihuacan, Mexico, the spring equinox is celebrated at the Pyramid of the Sun with hot-air balloons, traditional native dancers, and more. Not only is it geographically closer than the other festivals, but no one will ask you to sweep out a tomb or play polo with a dead goat.

Easter: Ah, something familiar. Easter in America isn’t a full-tilt celebration like Christmas or even St. Patrick’s Day. It’s more of a family day, a travel day, a day to consume ham and chocolate (highly recommended: the Easter chocolates from Oaks Candy, in Oshkosh, Wis.). But there’s still an Easter Parade of spiffily-dressed dandies on New York’s Fifth Avenue that’s not what it was back in the Fred-Astaire-and-Judy-Garland days but is still worth a half-hour of your time, and the traditional White House Easter-egg roll that’s worth attending once though not significantly more than once, like maybe once-and-a-half.

Details, details. It’s spring! Get out and enjoy it — starting this weekend.


Editor’s Note: Spring is a time to get out and get moving. But move smart: Make sure you have coverage from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Get it here.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.