The Fascinating Origins of 15 Spring Symbols and Traditions

Yes, a lot of them involve eggs.
Ever wonder why we decorate Easter eggs?
Ever wonder why we decorate Easter eggs? / Elizabeth Fernandez/Moment/Getty Images

After a long and frosty winter, there’s nothing more gratifying than diving headfirst into a few of your favorite springtime traditions. But as you’re celebrating the sunny season with domestic cleanses, painted eggs, and frenzied grappling matches over beer barrels, you might begin to wonder where these rituals came from.

1. Spring Cleaning

photo of a person sweeping a wooden floor
Spring is for Easter Bunnies, not dust bunnies. / Carlos Barquero/Moment/Getty Images

It might seem like simple good sense to want to purge your house of debris following a lengthy season of indoor loafing, but there is actually some cultural significance to the annual task. Some theories trace modern spring cleaning back to the Persian New Year of Nowruz, which coincides with the first day of spring. Observers of the holiday celebrate the “rebirth of nature” by replacing old items and garments with new ones. An alternative potential origin involves Jewish culture’s springtime task of ridding a household of all yeast-based foodstuffs in preparation for Passover.

2. Yard Sales

Roadside yard sale furniture
Spring cleaning often leads to spring yard sales. / Richard Baker/GettyImages

And what do you do with all your old clothes and miscellaneous junk once you’ve unloaded it from the crawl space? Turn a profit! When springtime hits American suburbs, it’s tough to find a block that isn’t boasting one or two yard sales. This national pastime, also commonly known as a “rummage sale,” dates back to the early 1800s, when shipyards would put lost or damaged cargo (referred to by the now archaic term “romage”) up for public retail.

3. May Day

Fist Pumping Worker in May Day demonstration
May Day celebrates both spring and workers' rights. / Alex Bowie/GettyImages

The first day of May is celebrated in the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and throughout Europe as a symbolic representation of springtime. The holiday shares themes and rituals with the Ancient Roman festival of Floralia, a tribute to the goddess Flora. The celebration, held regularly from April 28 through May 3 during the reign of the Roman Empire, involved games and competitions, theatrical performances, and the pelting of beans and lupins.

May Day is more than spring celebration. In the U.S., it also honors the Haymarket Affair. On May 1, 1886, factory workers in Chicago went on strike for better working conditions. The days-long situation soon became violent: Police killed or injured several workers, and later, after bomb was detonated in a group of officers, law enforcement opened fire at the protesters.

4. Painted Eggs

photos of painted eggs at an Easter egg market
People have been decorating eggs for a very long time. / Steffi Loos/GettyImages

There are several theories about why we decorate eggs for Easter. According to one, the origins of the family-friendly art project and scavenger hunt prize can be traced back to ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures. Several thousand years ago, the Egyptians and Sumerians would honor their dead with adorned ostrich eggs.

5. Egg Dancing

The Egg Dance
'The Egg Dance' / Heritage Images/GettyImages

A somewhat less common egg-related tradition is the egg dance, in which participants scatter basketfuls of eggs as they dance jubilantly around them, hoping to destroy as few eggs as possible. The earliest known reference to the egg dance may have taken place in 1498, when the Duke of Savoy and Archduchess of Austria’s victory in the game is said to have resulted in their engagement and marriage.

6. Balancing an Egg

Some people like to celebrate the spring equinox by balancing an egg upright. There’s a belief that eggs will only remain upright on the equinoxes, due to the balance of day and night. However, eggs can stand upright on any day.

7. The Easter Bunny

The Easter Bunny Skates On The Rink At Rockefeller Center
Not every Easter Bunny knows how to ice skate. / Neilson Barnard/GettyImages

Ubiquitous in American lore though he may be, the Easter Bunny is actually on loan from German paganism. In said mythology, he bore form as an egg-laying hare alternatively named Osterhase and Oschter Haws. The critter breached American shores when German immigrants found home in Pennsylvania in the 1700s.

8. Easter Candy

photo of chocolate Easter bunnies
Those ears are waiting to be eaten. / Joe Raedle/GettyImages

The Easter Bunny’s annual gift of chocolate and candies is a relatively newer tradition. People first began to exchange sweets on Easter in the Victorian age, when new candy-making technology allowed for the creation of hollow chocolate sculptures. While still of a high quality, these confections were less expensive and less time-consuming to make than they had been before, leading to a candy market boom.

9. Lambs

photo of a lamb in a field
Lambs have long been associated with spring. / Harry Trump/GettyImages

Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of baby sheep in Easter and springtime decorations has its origins in Christianity as well—Jesus is commonly referred to as “the lamb of God.” Lamb is also an Easter dinner staple. This menu placement comes from the aforementioned affiliation with Jesus, but also because, historically, Jewish people would eat lamb during Passover—when they converted to Christianity, the tradition continued.

10. Wet Monday

Known alternatively as lany poniedziałek, Śmigus-Dyngus, or (best of all) Dyngus Day, Poland’s particularly joyful Easter Monday tradition is total anarchy for neighborhood children, who drench one another with buckets of water (often while the victim is still asleep in bed). One theory attributes the practice once again to the botanical affections of European pagans, likening the waterlogging of friends to the saturation of the holy Corn Mother.

11. Water Festival

A similar bout of aquatic levity takes place annually in several countries in Southeast Asia. In addition to the simple splashing of water, the Asian cultures’ variation on the practice involves boat races, floating river lanterns, and the dousing of a Buddhist statue. The holiday is rooted in the Dai association of water with religious purity, good luck, and good will. Soaking your friend or neighbor with a hearty splash is meant to bestow him or her with good fortune.

12. The Burning of the Böögg

For a little more than a century, the longstanding Swiss holiday of Sechseläuten has involved the ceremonial burning of the Böögg—a life-sized cotton snowman packed with fireworks—as a testament to the transition from cold to warmth. The length of time the Böögg burns is meant to predict the weather of the coming summer, with a quick burn indicating a warm and sunny season to come. This element of the tradition makes it somewhat similar to…

13. Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day Is Celebrated In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
Don't worry, the groundhog can't actually predict a long winter. / Jeff Swensen/GettyImages

Though the American Groundhog Day occurs a good month and a half before spring even begins, the ultimate fate of the spring season depends on the forecast told by the subterranean mammal in question … or so mythology holds. Much like the Easter Bunny, Groundhog Day owes its birth to German culture’s immigration to Pennsylvania.

Also taking place on February 2, the Christo-Pagan holiday Candlemas, prevalent in a number of European cultures, forebears the themes of Groundhog Day. The below German poem explains it rather succinctly:

For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow swirl until May.
For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine before May.

As Morgantown, Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris wrote in his diary (slightly erroneously) on February 4, 1841, “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

14. Maypole Dancing

Another likely German import is the appropriately named May 1 tradition of circling a sizeable pole in musical merriment. As it was common among Western pagan cultures to worship trees (Norse mythology even involved a “world tree” known as Yggdrasil), historians believe that the original European custom had observers dancing around a living tree in celebration of natural fertility.

15. Holi

The wildly popular “festival of colors” began as a Hindu holiday, but has extended its reach into the secular canon in India and Nepal. Celebrated every March by way of traditions similar to those in many other cultures (bonfires and water fights are prevalent), Holi enjoys its own rich back story.

After the noble and just figure Prahlada refused to bow down to the tyrannical King Hiranyakashipu, his father, the king employed his sister Holika to do away with Prahlada. The malicious Holika’s efforts to trick Prahlada into stepping into a burning pyre backfired, however, and it was she who was burned alive by the grace of Vishnu. As such, the bonfire—a Holi tradition—is a reminder of the ever-active scales of cosmic and spiritual justice.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.

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