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Valerie Biel Asks: Would Spring by any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

Valerie Biel is the author of the Circle of Nine series. You can find out more about her at her website, ValerieBiel.com, or by clicking here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

Growing up on a farm and in a climate with very distinct seasonal changes, I was always aware of the rhythms of the earth as we progressed through the year–particularly when what often seemed like the never-ending winter finally gave way to spring and the first good-smelling days had us cracking open the windows and shedding our winter coats.

You can imagine then when I began writing the Circle of Nine series, the Wheel of the Year with its eight celebrations did not feel that foreign to me. This calendar celebrates the four solar holidays (the two solstices and the two equinoxes), which are also called quarter days and the four holidays which fall directly between them, also known as cross-quarter days. The calendar begins with Samhain on October 31, then Yule or the winter solstice, followed by Imbolc, bringing us to our current point in the year Ostara or the Spring Equinox. (I previously discussed Samhain in an October blog: “What Are Your Traditions for October 31 and November 1?”)

This year Ostara (aka the Spring Equinox) was just celebrated this past Sunday, March 20 . . . most people (in the northern hemisphere) will just see this as the beginning of spring but to those who follow this calendar of celebrations, it is so much more. Are you curious?

The name Ostara comes from the goddess of spring Oestre or Eastre. The name derives from the word for dawn—the shining light from the east. (I find it interesting that the word for estrogen comes from this name as well.) This celebration is a joyous one, embracing the springtime rebirth of the earth after the long winter. Indeed, symbols featured as part of this celebration include eggs and rabbits—traditional objects signifying fertility. (If you are thinking that this seems similar to Easter, you’d be right. Many of these pagan traditions were absorbed into the Easter celebration as Christianity spread.)

The characters in the Circle of Nine series definitely embrace the egg dyeing tradition, using natural colorants to make the shells a pastel rainbow.

“Bressa, Maureen, and Onora spent the day dyeing Ostara eggs, the pastel shells making a lovely rainbow when finished. Pretty though they were, the process made Bressa’s household positively reek as the boiled vegetables used for the coloring were particularly odorous—red cabbage for blue, onion skins for orange, spinach for green, beets for pink, and the inner bark of the apple tree for yellow.” ~from the Circle of Nine series

My characters also make hot cross buns, which is now known as a distinctly Christian tradition, but can be traced back to the pre-Christian ancient spring festival as well. You might wonder if I embrace either of these celebratory endeavors, and I can say that while I admire these efforts, it is from afar. I’ve never met a yeast dough I didn’t kill, and I’m a little too impatient to steep hardboiled eggs in beet juice for hours. The pagan version of Martha Stewart I am decidedly NOT.

But I love learning about such things, and that’s why this kind of research makes writing such fun! But it is also a serious responsibility to get the details right. As I dove into the pagan rituals and Celtic holidays my main character’s family follows, I had to be careful to discern which holiday names and practices were truly those of the ancient Celts versus more modern incarnations of pagan celebrations along with noting the way traditions differ from country to country and which are predominantly Irish or Celtic. I hope layering in these details has made for a richer reading experience.

So Happy Spring and Blessed Ostara to you all . . . I hope that by either name it is just as sweet as we welcome the new season.

Valerie Biel

Valerie Biel is the author of the award-winning Circle of Nine series (stories inspired by Celtic mythology and the stone circles of Ireland). Learn more about her on her website valeriebiel.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. saralynrichard

    How fascinating, Valerie! I’ll never forget walking into an ancient religious temple and finding a mosaic of the zodiac signs on the floor. I applaud your work in making the details so vibrant and authentic in your novels!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Thanks Saralyn! I have a lot of fun learning all these details. It’s always an interesting experience when I go to my small-town library to check out a stack of witch – wicca – pagan books for research. (But they’re kind of used to me now.)

  2. joyribar

    What a welcoming post to kick off a season of renewal. I always learn something new from you, Valerie. I think the Celtic rituals and ancient culture is fascinating. In college, I studied Arthurian legend and bumped into many cross-overs from Celtic culture. I love it!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Arthurian legend — how fascinating!! There are so many things that intersect as you look at legends and mythologies. It’s a ton of fun.

  3. Avanti Centrae

    Happy “spring!” I love this type of history. It’s fascinating to think about how much of what we assume to be uniquely Christian is actually far, far older. Not that anything more than love really matters in the end, but it is fun to see how rituals evolve over time.

    1. Valerie Biel

      It is, isn’t it. I spend (sometimes) longer on research than necessary because it IS so interesting.

  4. Jacqueline Vick

    Wonderful information. My aunt used to dye wool naturally. She boiled walnut shells during one visit, but I never saw the finished product. I should tell her to try spinach!

    1. Valerie Biel

      That’s interesting — walnut shells. Did it take a long time? (I really should do this at least once with the eggs, just to say I tried it. I am afraid they might not come out as pretty as they’re shown in the pictures though.)

  5. Sherrill Joseph

    I enjoyed The Circle of Nine, Beltane, all over again in this post, Valerie! Thanks for the imagery about Ostara/Spring. It took me back to my childhood rituals for Easter. Blessed Ostara to you!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Thanks, Sherrill! I think it is a lot of fun. Each time I write about something from the Circle of Nine world I’m reminded how much I liked being in the thick of writing those stories. It’s time to get back there!

  6. I am always amazed at how many pagan rituals the Christian church picked up. Thanks for a lovely post.

    1. Valerie Biel

      It was a good way to make the pagans feel comfortable! right??!! 🙂

  7. Donna Rewolinski

    I love this history, learning of traditions and cultures. It shows that we are connected with ideas of life, renewal, and celebration.

    1. Valerie Biel

      Really universal themes for sure. It all makes for really fun research and every once in a while you find something incredibly cool that you know you just have to use in a book.

  8. Laurie story

    I love your comment about killing yeast dough. Do you put that humor in your books?

    1. Valerie Biel

      I do try to, Laurie. Of course, it works better with some characters than others. 🙂

  9. Christine DeSmet

    I was also raised on a farm and anything having to do with celebrating the Earth and soil and the seasons has great meaning for me. That’s why I love your writing–it’s as rich as the loam in Wisconsin. For those unfamiliar with soil lingo, “loam” is a big compliment, the highest level. Your post was filled with nuggets. Great post!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Thanks, Christine. I actually have a middle grade adventure series with a parent who is a soil specialist from the UW. And there’s this bit where the main character (the daughter) bemoans how it was drilled into her head to not use the word ‘dirt’ when what she’s really referring to ‘soil.’

      1. Nancy Stippich

        That thing about “soil” was exactly how my mom trained all 8 of her kids. She would correct us every time we said the word dirt in reference to soil. I guess it’s not just my siblings and I who got that drilled into our heads! She was by no means a soil specialist though, she was an eager gardener.

  10. Laurie Buchanan

    Valerie — I’ve read every book in the Circle of Nine series and LOVED each one. I hope there are more to come (hint, hint).

    And though I wasn’t raised on a farm, I have an affinity for each season. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite because they each have something extraordinary to offer.

    1. Valerie Biel

      Thank you, Laurie! I agree about the seasons, and I know that even though I complain about winter in Wisconsin — I would miss snow. Although I wouldn’t mind there being about 1 month less of winter with a longer spring or fall instead.

  11. Thank you for this informative post, Valerie. I also grew up country on a cattle ranch, and my husband and I have lived in the country the past 40 years. I used to take my kids out into the field to “smell the dirt” each spring when the fields were plowed the first time. Loved the information in this post!

    1. Valerie Biel

      You’re welcome, Margaret. I love that fresh spring smell!

  12. Tracey Phillips

    Thanks for the Ostara/Equinox reminder! We were steeped in paint, and not the egg coloring kind, so I completely forgot this year. I usually celebrate by lighting a candle on the equinox. This year, because the weather cooperated fully, I spent the day outside preparing my yard for new growth. Since I am (by choice) more pagan than Christian, I enjoyed those descriptions in your books. And I’m glad you take the time to research the details. History fascinates me! Thank you for this lovely post and happy Ostara to you!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Sounds like a wonderful way to celebrate Ostara! I am fascinated by all of this information, too. It’s so fun to know the background of why we do certain things and where those traditions/customs started.

  13. Sharon Lynn Bolman

    Fantastic post, Valerie! I wrote a thesis during my masters program about Spring rituals and how the concept of rebirth and renewal fed the advent of theater. That was when I learned about Ostara and eggs. I loved seeing it in your book and the picture you included of the eggs is great fun!
    I have two words for you regarding yeasted dough: bread machine. I make traditional hot cross buns in the bread machine and it does all the tricky bits for me. All I have to do is form the buns and pipe the crosses. It’s fun!
    Or, beginner tip – just cook the dough in the bread machine. It makes a flavorful and festive loaf!

    1. Valerie Biel

      Wow! You are definitely an expert if you wrote a thesis on that topic. Yes, I need to get a bread machine. Crazy how they make things to help out in the kitchen to stop me from bad baking.

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