Spring festivals

by Terence MacNamee

In much of Europe, it is Carnival. Here in Switzerland, the whole thing is in full swing, with noisy carnival bands playing, masked figures dancing through the streets, consuming a great deal of alcohol, braving the late-winter temperatures. I was just out for a walk before dusk, and the streets were covered in confetti like snow. But the sun shone. On the way home, I heard the first blackbird of the year trying to sing.

Tonight is Mardi Gras, the culmination of it all, and then tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, when Carnival is over and Lent begins. To be sure, the celebration of excess happens just before the traditional Lenten fast, but the bizarre masks and monstrous figures and the noise-making can be seen as of much more primitive origin – as a ritual to scare away the spirits of winter and make way for the spirit of spring.

Half a world away, it’s getting up to the Chinese New Year. On Wednesday, it is Chinese New Year’s Eve. Chinese people will be getting together for family reunion dinners to mark the beginning of the holiday season, as will people in other countries who observe the lunar new year celebration.

These two festival times seem to have nothing in common. In fact, just as the Chinese are sitting down to a good dinner, the Christian world will be beginning its Lenten fast in preparation for Easter. But the word Lent really just means Spring. Whether in the East or the West, whether with feasting or fasting, people in the northern part of the globe at least are celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of the agricultural year, the cycle of growing.

Festivals are peculiar to cultures or civilisations, and they have so much evocative power for people who belong to them, but we see that there is something universal about them. Today we are more aware of them than ever. In a way, this worldwide awareness of different festivals relativizes their importance. On the other hand, it reminds us of our common humanity.