Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Evil Socks of Spring

On Sunday, March 20, at 11:23 p.m. Universal Time—7:21 p.m. in New Jersey—the vernal equinox occurred, marking the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere. The next morning, we woke up to a snowstorm, which blanketed our neighborhood with about five inches of snow. This mushy precipitation had the decency to start melting away later on in the day, but the damage to my morale was done. Two days later, another snowstorm rode into town, reducing spring to a bitter and meaningless ruse.

The winter of 2010-11 was an especially grueling one, particularly for those of us who had to do our own snow shoveling. So seeing nature sneer at us on the first day of spring is a bit much. More sneering a few days later is totally unacceptable.

Just in case Mother Nature didn’t know, the “ver” in “vernal” is Latin for spring—not snow. In a show of optimism, many cultures celebrate the spring equinox. Putting a brave foot forward, I have selected two completely random observances that are my favorites. The first is from antiquity, the second is a more recent American tradition.

I'm thinking that winter may have some boundary issues.
Evil Winter
The Zoroastrian holiday of Persian New Year, or Nowruz, is particularly important to me because it involves a mythical king of Persia who saved everyone from a brutal winter that threatened to kill every living creature. This mythical king, Jamshid, constructed a throne studded with gems. He had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens so he could sit on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him, and called this day the New Day or No/Now-Ruz. That said, here’s the important part of the story.

One day, Ahura Mazda, the God of Truth, warned Jamshid of an upcoming catastrophe: "Upon the material world, the evil winters are about to fall, that shall bring the fierce, deadly frost; upon the material world the evil winters are about to fall, that shall make snow-flakes fall thick." Ahura Mazda advised Jamshid to construct a multi-level cavern underground, two miles long and two miles wide. He was to populate this cavern with the fittest of men and women as well as with two of every animal, bird and plant. Food and water was supplied from the previous summer's harvest. Jamshid created a city underground with streets and buildings, and brought nearly two thousand people to live there. He created artificial light, and finally sealed the underground chamber with a golden ring. Thus, he saved at least some of the world from this terrible winter. My hero.

Evil Socks
Perhaps one of the stinkiest spring equinox traditions hails from Maryland. Boatyard employees and sailboat owners there celebrate the spring equinox with the Burning Of The Socks Festival. Traditionally, the boating community wears socks only during the winter. These are joyously burned at the approach of warmer weather. Officially, after this ritual, nobody dons socks until the next equinox.

Nothing says spring like the stench of burning socks.
A bit more recent than Persian New Year, this tradition is said to have begun in the mid 1980s, thanks to a guy named Bob, who managed the Annapolis Yacht Yard. He spent winters working on other people’s boats. At winter's end, his socks were coated with an unappealing mixture of dried varnishes, fiberglass goop and miscellaneous debris. One day, which happened to be the spring equinox, he shed his socks, placed them in a paint-roller tray, carried the tray out to a pier, doused it with lighter fluid and threw in a match. Thus, the hallowed Burning Of The Socks ritual was born.

Over the years, the tradition has expanded up and down the east and west coasts. Apparently, it is a low-key affair. Crowds tend to be small. And a barrel of oysters and a shucking knife were recently added to the festivities. Otherwise, it tends to be a quiet and smelly acknowledgment of impending spring. Only in America.

So what have we learned? Well, the message here is—and I hope you are listening Mother Nature—that spring is the time of year when snow is nothing more than a frosty memory, people who have survived the winter emerge from their caves, and socks are ecstatically burned in commemoration of a guy named Bob. Such is the eternal truth of the vernal equinox, and such is all we need know.


  1. We had a minor spring ritual at Harpur College up in Binghamton, NY. This was in the early 70’s, back when “Binghamton University” was way too pretentious a name, and rituals in general were considered so …well…. ritualized… and therefore unspontaneous and stuffy, that we avoided them altogether, unless they came from good pagan, earth-affirming origins, a safe anthropological distance from the Holy Communions and Bar Mitzvahs of our direct ancestors.

    Or, as with sock burning, they were of very recent invention. We had the Stepping on the Coat ceremony. This was firmly in place by the time I got to Binghamton, but since the whole SUNY system didn’t go as far back as World War II, it couldn’t have been all that venerable. It was short and simple: Everyone gathered outside the student center, a few words were spoken, and everyone proceeded to take off their heavy winter coats, down parkas, sheepskin jackets, put them on the ground, and step on them. Spring had then officially arrived.

    Since then, Binghamton’s SUNY school has way beefed up its engineering department and let fraternities and sororities in. Today, I bet they are lousy with rituals, public and secret.

  2. It sounds like people enjoy expressing themselves with clothes, whether it is stepping on coats, burning socks or bras, tossing panties or throwing shoes. I can't help but wonder what my kindergarten teacher would have said.

  3. Harpur College had become SUNY Binghamton by the time I was there in the early 1990's but the Stepping on the Coat ritual was still in practice. After a snowy upstate NY winter spring was always very welcome.

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