I stepped out for a run a few nights ago, just past eight o’clock. It was just dark, the sky steely blue but carrying the memory of daylight, and high in the western sky was a crescent moon standing with Venus a few inches away. Unusually close and unusually bright, it seemed that if you stood still and watched you could see them move towards each other, like things swimming in a calm pool.
I am a librarian. Once upon a time, people came to me for answers. One of the things they asked repeatedly at this time of year, and which I had to find in the Almanac each year, was the formula for figuring the date for Easter. It is a curiosity, since Easter Sunday can fall anytime from March 22 to pretty late in April. I know the formula by heart, it is engraved in my memory, though it has been years since anyone asked: the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. This is because, in scripture, Jesus was executed the day after the Last Supper, which, according to many traditions, was a Passover Seder. Passover, by the Jewish lunar calendar, is observed the first full moon after the spring equinox. Thus the Sunday after that would be the day Jesus arose.
That swimming crescent moon is waxing now, and will be full on Friday, April 6th. Sunday the 8th is Easter. No matter how early or late it comes, by Easter, we are deep into spring, and most of the cliches are past. Spring has sprung. The harbingers of spring–whatever you perceive them to be–have come and gone. Robins, crosuses, daffodils, asparagus. It is time to move on to tomatoes and corn, baseball, the opening of swimming pools and the things of summer.
It’s funny that we recognize ‘harbingers’ of spring, and don’t use the word for much of anything else. (I have heard ‘harbingers of death,’ which is closer to its original meaning.) The word comes from an old French word meaning hotel or inn, or, by transference, a place of refuge. In French military parlance (and after the Norman Conquest, English military parlance) a harbinger was a person who traveled ahead of an army seeking places for them to stay. So you can see how the word eventually came to mean something that comes before something else, announcing its coming. Still, I don’t know why it took on its cliched use with symbols of spring, while it is hardly used anywhere else.
It puzzles me that while I am keenly interested in the seasons and their effects on us, I am at the same time put off by what I just referred to as seasonal cliches–crocuses in spring, photographs of falling leaves in autumn, a snowman in winter. Somehow it seems to me that the seasons, or what I mean by the seasons, is more profound. What do I mean by more profound? Probably nothing.
You can have the deepest respect or appreciation for the things of nature, and still find them to be represented in its simplest manifestation. Some people see God’s handiwork in each little flower. (For one of the best expressions of this sentiment I will refer you to the John Updike short story Pigeon Feathers.) Even for people who don’t believe this, the mystery of a flower coming to life when the ground starts to warm is often all the mystery they need.
I tend to look to the night skies for seasonal indications. Is the appearance of Venus or Jupiter, or Orion rising on the horizon any more profound than a robin building a nest in my pear tree? Perhaps my attitude is that anyone can spot the robin. Knowing the names of stars and planets is a lost skill for most people. But whether we are looking up or down, when we find the signs of seasonal change we are all participating in a pastime that goes back to our beginnings as a species, whether we find them scattered in the night sky, or in Mrs. Barton’s flowerbeds.