(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 11, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
In the ancient Romans’ original calendar, March was the first month, the beginning of spring being a logical starting point for a new year. In Rome’s Mediterranean climate, the weather was suitable for beginning military campaigns, which explains why the month was named for Mars, the god of war. After the adoption of the Julian calendar in 46 BC, the months of January and February were inserted in front of March. But many cultures throughout the world historically observed a day or days in March as the beginning of their new year.
In Finland March is “maaliskuu,” or “earthy month,” since the soil is once again visible beneath the melting snow. The Saxons referred to March as “Lentmonat” -- lent or spring month -- deriving from the Old English words meaning “long day.” Early Britons also called March “hyld-monath,” meaning a loud, stormy month.
The March wind roars
Beginning of Spring
By meteorological definition, the calendar's spring months are March, April and May, making March 1 the first day of spring. Astronomically, the beginning of spring is determined by the vernal equinox. “Vernal” comes from the Latin “vernalis,” meaning "of the spring." The word equinox refers to the time when night and day are of approximately the same length, and derives from the Latin “equinoxium,” which literally means equal night. The spring or vernal equinox falls on March 20 or 21, when the sun shines directly on the equator, making the length of day and night nearly equal throughout all parts of the world.
Throughout recorded history, people have welcomed the turn of the season on this day, celebrating birth, new growth and the return of the sun. The ancient Egyptians oriented the Sphinx such that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the spring equinox. Each spring, pilgrims flock to the ancient Mayan monument of Chichen Itza, where on both the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, afternoon sunlight hits the pyramid in such a way that the shadows resemble the body of a huge rattlesnake descending a stairway.
Of course, March is the time of the vernal equinox for the earth’s northern hemisphere only; residents of the southern hemisphere are just beginning to don sweaters on the day that for them marks the autumnal equinox.
The Ides of March
Today if we remember anything about the "ides" or middle of the month, it is most likely the Shakespearean warning to “beware the Ides of March.” For the ancient Romans, the Ides of March was a festival day honoring Mars, god of war. March 15 became notorious as a bad-luck omen for dictators when on that day in 44 BC, a group of conspirators led by Marcus Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Luckily for us, Julius had already ordered his eponymous calendar reform into effect a couple of years earlier. Imagine the havoc wreaked on our computers if we still operated on a ten-month calendar requiring constant adjustment to maintain alignment with the sun and the moon.
St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick’s Day, observed annually on March 17, is the feast day of Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. It is a national holiday in Ireland, and has been publicly observed on American shores since 1762, when Irish soldiers serving with the British troops marched through the streets of New York City on March 17 (a relatively sedate precursor to some modern civic celebrations in which whole rivers are dyed green). The shamrock became a symbol of the day because Patrick was said to use its three leaves to explain the trinity of father, son and holy spirit to his converts.
Lent or the Lenten season, the 40 days leading up to the Christian celebration of Easter, largely falls in the month of March. Easter is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21, and thus more times than not falls in April rather than March. Traditionally a time of prayer, penitence and self-denial, Lent is marked in many churches by the use of purple banners and vestments.
The pale blue aquamarine, birthstone of those born in March, has been sought after for centuries for its tranquil beauty. The name derives from the Latin “aqua marina,” or sea water. Early sailors believed that an aquamarine talisman would protect them from danger at sea. Brazil is the leading producer of the stone, which is the blue-green variety of the mineral beryl. Aquamarine can range from palest blue to teal, with the most prized color being a deep aqua-blue shade. In modern times, the stone is associated with beauty, honesty, loyalty and happiness.
March’s birth flower is the daffodil, no doubt chosen for its cheery disposition and willingness to emerge in cold weather. Daffodil is the commonly-used name for the genus Narcissus, which consists of hardy, reliable and long-lived spring-flowering bulbs. Originally native to Mediterranean lands, daffodils are now grown throughout the world. Most often yellow or gold, they can also be found in shades of orange, white, pink, lime green and numerous combinations of these colors. The American Daffodil Society divides narcissus into 13 horticultural divisions: trumpet, large-cupped, small-cupped, double, triandrus, cyclamineus, jonquilla, tazetta, poeticus, bulbocodium, split-corona, species, miniature and miscellaneous. Often sweetly fragrant and always a welcome sight in spring, the daffodil serves as a symbol of hope and of rebirth.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
~ William Wordsworth
All About the Months by Maymie R. Krythe, Harper and Row, 1966
"Windy Weather" by James Gillray from WikiGallery, in the public domain
Easter postcard from Victorian Trade Card Collection at Miami University Library
American Robin graphic from US Fish and Wildlife Service, in the public domain
Narcissus engraving by Pierre-Joseph Redoute from WikiGallery, in the public domain
Shamrocks from Karen's Whimsy, in the public domain
Aquamarine photo by Opacity
Daffodils photo by Chris Coomber
Daffodils Everywhere photo by Bods