I understand, on a gut level, the theme of death and rebirth so prominent in even stone age religions. In the fall, mysteriously, the plants wither and the color departs and the long winter sets in. Death all around. What if spring never returns?
And so, many ancient peoples held New Year celebrations with various rituals and re-enactments of death and rebirth. We still have New Years celebrations. They thought it would help spring, and therefore life, return to the world.
I grew up on a New England farm and slogged through many a long, cold, dead winter. Gray trees, brown grass, and the little streams, once lively and chuckling, now frozen solid like crooked bones winding through the forest. The short, cloudy days and long frigid nights dragged on and on, the cows humped up in the pasture, backs turned to the driving sleet. Waiting.
When the ice broke in the Coginchaug River, I stood on the bridge staring as the mountainous ice slabs, heaved by the melting water, piled up along the banks, gouging out big chunks of frosty mud. When the ice cracked, the sound rang out like gunshots and echoed through the crystal air.
My Pop had a spring-o-meter. He planted crocuses by the workshop chimney and while it still seemed to be winter everywhere, he called us all out to the see the brave little flowers popping up through the snow. “See?” he would say, “Spring is coming.” The first green things to come up in the pastures were, I guess, wild turnip greens. I can only guess because Pop, the son of a Polish serf, called them something like “zanobbies.” He came into the kitchen, grinning, with an armload of zanobbies and handed them proudly to my mom. He looked so happy eating the first green things of the coming year.
Perhaps the long spell of frozen death made me a little crazy, because the first warmish day, I lay on a log like a turtle and dozed in the sun. “Spring fever,” my uncle diagnosed as he walked by. And once, coming across the field and finding the ice had melted on the pond, I walked right in and swam across. The water was probably 45 degrees; cold enough to kill you from hypothermia. But it couldn’t kill me, I thought; I had lived through the long dead winter and now spring, and life, had once again returned to the land.