Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Naw-Rúz



Introduction

The Vernal Equinox has religious significance for several religions. In Baha’iism and Zoroastrianism, it marks the major holiday of Naw-Rúz. In Islam, in the Alawite Shiite tradition, Naw-Rúz is a minor holiday, as it is in the Sufi Islamic tradition of Betashism where it is called Sultan Nevruz.  

For the Baha’i and Zoroastrian (or Parsee) religions as well as Alawite, Alevi and Betashist Moslems, Naw-Rúz begins for 2017 at sunset on Monday, March 20 and ends at sunset Tuesday March 21.

This is the second of two posts. The earlier post dealt with the related holiday of the vernal equinox called Ostara. This is a major holiday for those practicing Wicca, Neo-Druidism and Neo-Paganism. You can read this post on Ostara at

This post deals with the religious holiday of Zoroastrianism, Baha’iism, and of certain Islamic sects. This post also describes the central Asian quasi-religious folk holiday of Naw-Rúz.

Naw-Rúz: A Note About the Name

Because ancient Persian does not transliterate well into Latin letters, a great number of alternative spellings for the same holiday. Within the Baha’i faith, Naw-Rúz is the preferred spelling.

In Zoroastrianism, there is no preferred English spelling. Indeed, there is. for that matter, no consistency as to whether the two words are hyphenated, combined or left separate. K.E. Eduljee on the Nowruz page of the Zoroastrian Heritage website found 24 spellings for the holiday on Google.   

2011 Norooz celebration
UNESCO headquarters, Paris
had performers from Afghanistan,
Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan,
Russia and Uzbekistan 
In 2009, UNESCO formally categorized what was spelled in English as Nowrooz as an official “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity event. This is the Farsi spelling of the holiday used in Iran. The UN, however, listed several other spellings as well.

Baha’is point out that, significantly, the meeting the Inter-governmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage took place in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Ironically, the UAE openly persecuted Baha’is through most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and, although things have improved since a change of policy in 1999, the UAE continues to block internet sites associated with the Baha’i faith.

Some of the most common spellings and the language associated with the spelling are Navroz (Uzbek), Novruz (Azeri), Nowruz (Arabic, Pashto, Turkmen, Kurdish), Navruz (Tajik), Nauryz or Nauriz (Kazakh, Kyrgyz), Nevruz (Turkish) and Novruzit (Albania).

For the purposes of this article, for no reason other than consistency sake,  I have kept to the Baha’i spelling of Naw-Rúz.

Naw-Rúz in Baha’iism

In the Baha’i religion, Naw-Rúz marks the beginning of the New Year and is among the most significant of their Holy Days.  

While Baha’i scripture indicates that Naw-Rúz falls on March 20, some Baha’is alternatively observe the holiday on March 21, especially in the United States, Canada, western European countries and India where March 21 is often considered to be the vernal equinox.

Naw-Rúz is the first day of the Baha’i calendar. On Naw-Rúz, Baha’is  are prohibited from working; this includes the prohibition of attending classes. 

For Baha’is,. Naw-Rúz marks the end of a 19-day fast in which no healthy adult eats from sunrise to sunset (similar to the practice of Moslems during Ramadan).  For Baha’is,  Naw-Rúz is spent in celebrations, although the traditions change from country to country. 

For most of the world’s 6-7 million Baha’is though, it remains customary on the Naw-Rúz holiday to gather as groups to read from the Baha’i holy writings,  wear new clothing, and to decorate with flowers.  In the United States, Baha’is traditionally hold pot-luck gatherings where festive foods are exchanged and people read from Baha’i scripture.

Naw-Rúz in Zoroastrianism

For Zoroatrianism, as with Baha’iism, Naw-Rúz marks the beginning of the New Year and is among the most significant of their Holy Days. 


Who are the Zoroastrians? A Brief Background

At this point, it may be worth pointing out who the Zoroastrians are. Zoroastrians are also called Parsees or Parsis, reflecting their origin in Persia (modern-day Iran). Zoroastrianism is an ancient faith founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in the 6th Century BCE. Zoroastrians worship the uncreated Creator called Ahura Mazda (literally Light and Wisdom). For centuries, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion of ancient Persia and the surrounding countries.

With the arrival of Islam, the fortunes of Zoroastrianism began to decline precipitously. The Zoroastrians were forced to leave Persia in the wake of major persecutions by Moslems beginning in the 10th Century CE. By the 12th Century, most Parsees, faced with a choice of conversion to Islam or death, chose to fell to what is now the Indian state of Gujarat, which is still the center of the Parsee population.

On the whole, Zoroastrians are not a large group, with perhaps a million followers, primarily in India and the United States.  However, Zoroastrians have a strong influence beyond their numerical size on the culture around them. 

Notable Zoroastrians (right to left)
Jamsetji Tata, Freddy Mercury, Zubin Mehta, Sooni Taraporevala
Many famous people are Zoroastrians including the conductor Zubin Mehta, the rock band Queen’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, the US Civil Rights leader and Boston University professor Farhang Mehr, Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala,  the father of India’s nuclear program Homi Jehangir Baba, several Bollywood actors and directors. India’s most prominent business family -- the Tatas --  are also Parsees. The Tata Group controls a vast empire of 114 different companies ranging from the world’s second-largest tea producer Tetley to south Asia’s largest automaker Tata Motors (which recently took over Land Rover and Jaguar). The Tata family is also credited with founding modern India’s university system. 
Zoroastrian Observance of Naw-Rúz

All Zoroastrians observe Naw-Rúz, although those of the Fasli sect celebrate a spring Naw-Rúz (or Jamshedi Naw-Rúz) and a summer Naw-Rúz.  Interestingly, while the three main sects of Zoroastrianism have separate calendars (which actually aligned for the only time in 1992, but again have unaligned), the dates of most holidays are a point of controversy.  Yet regardless of sect, all Zoroastrians recognize Naw-Rúz as the vernal equinox (which may fall on March 19, 20 or 21, varying by particular year). On Naw-Rúz, Zoroastrians refrain from work including school attendance.

Naw-Rúz Fire 
Traditionally, Zoroastrians light seven small bonfires on the eve of Naw-Rúz  to symbolically burn away pain and sickness. 

On Naw-Rúz Eve, children dress up in white sheets representing the souls of the departed. Parallels to the western traditions of Halloween are evident. Children are also give spoons to bang on pots and pans symbolically to chase out the old year and herald the new.

Also on Naw-Rúz Eve, Zoroastrians traditionally tie a knot in a handkerchief or cloth and ask the first person they see on the holiday to untie the knot, symbolically unraveling one’s misfortunes of the previous year and setting them free. Zoroastrians also wear new clothing and gather at people’s houses to celebrate. 

Farvardigan Days and Pateti

Observances actually begin before the holiday actually begins. Beginning ten days before Naw-Rúz starts what are called the Farvardigan Days or (in India) Muktad. This can be seen as somewhat equivalent  to the Roman Catholic All-Souls’ Day tradition (for more on All-Souls’ Day, please see my blog post at


 Fravashi
During the Farvadigan Days, prayers are offered at the temple for the fravashis, the souls of the departed. It is believed at this time that the souls of the dead are near at this point and that deceased loved ones provide blessings to those offering them such prayers. In time, fravashis can become guardian angels or farvards (hence the name Farvardian Days). The fravashi is one of the central symbols of Zoroastrianism but is also well-associated with ancient Persian culture. Because of this, until the overthrow of the Shah in Iran's Islamic Revolution, the symbol of the Pahlahvi dynasty there featured a  fravashi.

The day before Naw-Rúz is called Pateti. On Pateti, Zoroastrians are supposed to think deeply on all of the wrongdoings they have done over the past year. By repenting on these bad behaviors, believers hope to start the new year afresh.

The Haft Seen

Haft Seen Table Spread
Perhaps the most central symbol for Zoroastrians – particularly among the Parsees of India – is the table spread known as the Haft Seen.

The phrase  means the seven – “haft” -- things beginning with the Farsi letter “s” or “seen”(in other words, the Seven Esses). 
These seven items are highly symbolic although some disagreement from group to group surrounds what the actual seven items are. 

In general the Haft Seen are

1)      sabzeh (barley, wheat or lentils for rebirth)

2)       samanu (wheat germ pudding) or sekkeh (coins) which symbolize wealth)

3)      senjed (a Middle Eastern red date) symbolizing love

4)      seer (garlic) or seeb (apples) symbolizing health and beauty

5)      somaq (sumac berries, which by the way is the source of the English word, symbolizing the new day dawning or sunrise)

6)      serkey (or vinegar) symbolizing patience and gaining old age)

7)      sonbol (or hyacinths) symbolizing the coming of Spring itself, which the holiday marks. 

Additionally, most Zoroastrians light candles at the table of the Haft Seen (again as the symbolic purification of fire).

It is customary as well to have a bowl of water with an orange floating in it (symbolizing the earth floating in space) and/or a goldfish (symbolizing life within life, as well as representing the sun leaving Pisces at this time).

The Egg: A Link Between Christian Easter Practices and Zoroastrian Naw-Rúz

Eggs are an important symbol of rebirth used for Naw-Rúz. Three, five or seven eggs are often added to the Haft Sin table. These eggs are decorated for the holiday. For some idea of the type of patterns – traditional and new – used to decorate Naw-Rúz eggs, please see the “Magic Nowruz Egg” website at


Click on the dots beneath the eggs to bring up new selections. The video is also worth watching as it shows how to make the egg patterns (but unfortunately is not in English). Some decorated Naw-Rúz egg examples from the site are shown below.

Naw-Rúz eggs – called tokhme morgh – have multiple symbolic values. On one level, they represent people. The word for egg in ancient Persian is tied to the words for “person” mardom and “mortal” martiya. Indeed, it is from the same etymology that the English word “mortality” derives. In Zoroastrianism, the eggs represent a martiya tauxman meaning “the mortal seed.”

For at least 2500 years and more likely 3000 years, the Naw-Rúz egg has symbolized fertility. It is unclear whether the Zoroastrian association of the egg with fertility led to the association of the egg with the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian fertility goddess Ishtar or vice versa. The association of the egg with fertility in the two religions present in ancient Mesopotamia in any case reinforced each other. As the cult of Ishtar died out with the fall of the Assyrian Empire, most Zoroastrians would argue that their association with the springtime egg would be the truer one.

While some Christians have observed that Zoroastrian Naw-Rúz egg decoration parallels the Easter egg tradition, it is noteworthy that it is really the Easter egg that is derived from the Zoroastrian tradition, not vice versa.  In other words, the Christian custom of decorating and eating eggs at Easter is generally viewed as having had its origins in the Zoroastrian traditions of Persia which predated it by a millennium. The custom of decorating eggs was introduced to Europe by the soldiers of Alexander the Great after their return from their military campaigns there.

In another interesting parallel, the name Easter in English and several other languages is tied etymologically to the ancient Persian fertility goddess Ishtar,  Similarly, the Hebrew name Esther also has its origins in the fertility goddess Ishtar’s name. It is not coincidental that the Book of Esther around which the springtime Jewish holiday of Purim is centered took place in the Persian kingdom of Xerxes I. For more on the holiday of Purim, please see my blog post at


Naw-Rúz far predates Christianity, and has its origins in the religions of Ancient Persia. There are records of Zoroastrians observing Naw-Rúz that go back at least 3000 years. The holiday in some Zoroastrian traditions is believed to have been first observed in its present form by the religion’s founder Zoroaster.

Naw-Rúz Around the World

The celebration of Naw-Rúz is among the oldest cultural practices in the area once ruled by the Persian Empire. Far predating Islam, the holiday’s rituals are so deeply engrained over 3000 years of practice that it is still celebrated in Iran and several bordering areas.

The people of these regions celebrate Naw-Rúz as a semi-secular holiday, with some practices conducted in secret since many Islamic leaders in Iran have condemned it.   Still, Norooz (the Farsi name for Naw-Rúz) is an official, public secular holiday in Iran. Norooz lasts for four days with schools and universities often giving 13 days as a sort of spring break period.


Afghan girls with Naw-Rúz flowers
Naw-Rúz is also a public holiday in several other countries. In Afghanistan, the holiday was banned under the Taliban rule. Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Naw-Rúz is now once again an Afghan public holiday (lasting for four days as in Iran).

Other countries that make Naw-Rúz a four-day public holiday are Albania, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Azerbaijan has the longest period for the holiday as Naw-Rúz there lasts a full week, and officially is a seven-day public holiday.

Additionally, Naw-Rúz is recognized as a one-day public holiday in Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Finally, in the Kurdish portion of Iraq and in the India state of Kashmir, Naw-Rúz is an official, one-day, public holiday.

In Iran and the surrounding areas, the practice of spring house-cleaning has its origins in Naw-Rúz. This is the same tradition of “spring cleaning” practiced even in the West (from which several traditions adopted it during the influence of the Zoroastrians on the upper class of the military during the Roman Empire). 

Hyacinths have been a symbol
of Naw-Rúz in Iran for centuries
Other traditions include wearing newly bought clothes and decorating with hyacinths remain as the only remnant of practice for some Iranians.   Other Iranians – particularly in rural Iran -- continue to practice the setting of the Haft Seen and other practices.

Even where it is not a state holiday, Naw-Rúz is widely celebrated in much of central Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean and is a major holiday of celebration among the Iranian and Kurdish diasporas around the world.

Indeed, it was the importance of the holiday to Iranian and Kurdish groups in Canada that led it to recognize Naw-Rúz (although not as a public holiday in Canada) by requiring since 2009 that all official Canadian calendars include the date for Naw-Rúz. Also in 2009, President Barack Obama sent an official Naw-Rúz video message from the White House both recognizing the holiday and calling for better ties with Iran.

To see President Obama’s Naw-Rúz video message, see



Islamic Observances of Naw-Rúz

While three sects of Islam – the Alawis of Syria, the Alevis of Turkey and the primarily Albanian Sufi Bektashis —recognize Naw-Rúz as an Islamic holiday, it is important to note that this is not widespread in other Islamic traditions.

Indeed, during the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, Naw-Rúz was officially designated a “pagan” holiday and banned. Since 2001, though, the holiday has been officially recognized by Afghanistan as a national holiday.   

Alawi Naw-Rúz

The Alawite Moslems of Syria (the faith to which the ruling Assad family belongs) also celebrate Naw-Rúz. For the Alawis, this is a time of renewal and is marked with a feast. During the ongoing civil war in Syria there has been considerable concern regarding sectarian violence directed against the Alawis in Syria. In part motivated by the fact that President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawi, violence has led to multiple attacks against the community both politically-based from those opposed to the Assad regime as well as religiously-based from Sunni Muslims who are intolerant of Alawite beliefs. This has meant that many Alawis have fled their homes to other countries or into the mountains and that open Alawite  religious observance is increasingly dangerous in Syria. For more on the targeted attacks on the Alawis in Syria, please see
 http://www.irinnews.org/fr/report/98274/analysis-sectarian-violence-triggers-sunni-alawi-segregation-in-syria
or
http://www.npr.org/2012/06/13/154904208/in-syrias-sectarian-battle-who-are-the-alawites

Alevi Naw-Rúz (or Kurdish New Year)

Alevi man walks over Newruz 
bonfire to purify his soul
The Alevi Moslems, located primarily in Turkey, celebrate what they call Newruz both as a new year festival and as a time of reconciliation. The Alevis have added to the Zoroastrian traditions their own overlay, using the day to honor the birth of Imam Ali and his marriage to Fatima, and the saving of Yusuf (the Biblical Joseph) after his brothers abandoned him.. A special Nawruz cem (the Alevite worship service) is held for the day. Alevis have a custom of walking over the Newruz bonfire to purify their souls as the new year begins.

Following the founding of the Republic of Turkey until the early 1990's the Alevis in Turkey were officially discouraged from celebrating Naw-Rúz in public. Part of this was based on concerns that the lighting of bonfires caused a safety hazard. Many Alevis, however, argued that this was because a large number of Alevis are Kurdish and the government was concerned that Naw-Rúz would be used as as an opportunity for anti-government activism. In any case, since the 1990's, Alevi public celebrations, including bonfires, have been entirely allowed. Indeed, Alevi dancing and other programs for Naw-Rúz are frequently organized by local and municipal government officials in areas with a high Alevi population.

Bektashi Naw-Rúz

Bektashi and Alevi Moslems
celebrate Naw-Rúz
as the birthday of Imam Ali
The Bektashi Sufist of Albania also celebrate Naw-Rúz as the birthday of the Imam Ali. In addition to the housecleaning and similar cultural rituals followed in most secular celebration of Naw-Rúz, the Bektashi recite a mystical prayer used only on Naw-Rúz day. The prayer is centered on the image of “the light of divine reality” 

Quite apart from the religious significance of the Bektashi Naw-Rúz prayer, the language is poetic and beautiful. It opens as follows:


May god give his blessing, O friends
Nawruz the faithful
has come,
That is the anniversary of the king of kings,
of palace and of the brightness of day,
The wisdom of God has now become evident - -

The high mercy of God becoming manifest,
Verily all earth and heaven became filled with light.


The light of Divine Reality
has covered all the world.
Heaven scattered light like the dawn.
An angel came and saluted me,
He raised my fame above the exalted ones,
He said: "This night the king of religion
is being born,

The dweller in the highest throne is awaiting'
The rest of the prayer goes on to hope that the birth of Imam Ali be always remembered and that his relationship to the Prophet Mohammed be recalled forever. The second half of the prayer describes the symbolic importance of light and ties the divine light of guidance shown to Adam that was shared through each of the prophets of Islam through the Prophet Mohammed and the Imam Ali. This light is seen as the gateway to divine knowledge and reaching God.

Conclusion

As with all of my posts on this site regarding religious holidays, this overview is in no way intended to suggest what is or is not proper observance. The sole purpose here is to inform. If you would like to share your own views of the holiday, please do leave a comment. I would welcome hearing from you.

Happy Naw-Rúz!

Want to learn more?

General information

Fariba Amini, “The Grass is Green: Nowruz Celebrated at UDEL,” http://www.payvand.com/news/11/mar/1100.html

Catherine Beyer,  Naw-Ruz – The Baha'i and Zoroastrian New Year,” About.com:

"Nawruz: The Tradition of Aryan People," Farataramarzha.org English site:  http://www.faratarazmarzha.org/En/Culture/Nawrooze.htm
A. Shapur Shahbazi, “Iranian Traditions and Celebrations: Haft Sin,” Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies of the University of London: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/Celebrations/haftsin.htm

In Baha’iism

Baha’i Mosaic, “Some Baha’i Readings for a Naw-Ruz Gathering,” http://bahaimosaic.blogspot.com/2009/02/some-bahai-readings-for-naw-ruz.html


Dale Lehman, “A New Year Begins,” Planet Baha’i:

John Walbridge, “Naw-Rúz: The Bahá'í New Year,” Baha’i Library Online:

In Zoroastrianism:

K.E. Eduljee, “Nowruz,” Zoroastrian Heritage website: http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/nowruz/index.htm

Daily News and Analysis of India, “Parsis celebrate Zoroastrian New Year 'Navroz' in Mumbai,” http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_parsis-celebrate-zoroastrian-new-year-navroz-in-mumbai_1425865

Ali A. Jafarey, “Nowruz – Zarathushrian New Year,” http://www.zoroastrian.org/articles/nowruz.htm

In Islam:

Turkish Daily News, "Nowruz in Turkey":
http://www.fravahr.org/spip.php?breve621

Hunza Develpment Forum:


Clip Art Sources


Happy Naw Ruz opening image: http://media.photobucket.com/image/recent/herbiehowsermc/Naw-Ruz.jpg

2011 UNESCO Norooz celebration:  http://photobank.unesco.org/exec/fiche.htm

Jamsetji Tata stamp http://www.kamat.com/kalranga/artifact/stamps/s310.htm

Freddy Mercury: http://userserve-ak.last.fm/serve/_/3858151/Freddie+Mercury++35.jpg

Zubin Mehta: http://www.guidaindia.com/images/stories/zubin_mehta200px.jpg

Sooni Taraporevala: http://im.rediff.com/movies/2009/mar/12sli1.jpg

Naw Ruz fire: http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/images/47514000/jpg/_47514355_nz_fire_chrisdb_766x511.jpg

Fravashi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Faravahar.svg

 Haft Seen table spread: http://heritageinstitute.com/zoroastrianism/nowruz/nowruz3.htm#table

Naw Ruz eggs: http://magicnoruzegg.com/index-2.html 

Afghan girls with Naw Ruz flowers: http://www.faratarazmarzha.org/En/Culture/Nawrooze.htm

Hyacinths: http://www.ausgardener.com.au/plants/Hyacinth-Mixture.html

Alevi man walks over Newruz bonfire, Turkish Daily News:
http://www.fravahr.org/spip.php?breve621

Imam Ali painting by Ahmad Resa Haraji: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mola_Ali.jpg

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ostara

Introduction
The holiday of Ostara falls on the vernal equinox, celebrated on March 20 as a holiday in Wicca and Neo-Paganism.  While most Wiccans and Neo-Pagans will still work or go to school, those asking to have time off for worship should be accommodated.    

The Vernal Equinox has religious significance for several religions. In Wicca, Neo-Druidism and Neo-Paganism, the holiday is called Ostara and is a major holiday. In some neo-Pagan traditions, the holiday is also known as Alban Eilir or as Lady Day.

In Baha’iism and Zoroastrianism, the vernal equinox marks the major holiday of Naw-Rúz. In Islam, in the Alawite Shiite tradition, Naw-Rúz is a minor holiday, as it is in the Sufi Islamic tradition of Betashism where it is called Sultan Nevruz  holiday.

Ostara begins on Friday, March 20 coinciding with the vernal equinox.  For the Baha’i and Zoroastrian (or Parsee) religions as well as Alawite, Alevi and Betashist Moslems, Naw-Rúz begins on  March 20 at sunset and runs through sunset on March 21.

This is the first of two posts. The second post deals with the related holiday of the vernal equinox of Naw-Rúz. You can read that post at

http://davidvictorvector.blogspot.com/2012/03/naw-ruz.html
What Is Ostara?
The vernal equinox is the time of year when the day and night are equally balanced. For Wicca and Neo-Paganism, this makes Ostara one of the four Lesser Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. Lesser Sabbats relate to cycle of the sun while Greater Sabbats deal with the cycle of the moon.
In Wicca and Neo-Paganism, both equinoxes are times of balance and peacefulness. In addition, the vernal equinox celebrates the coming of Spring and is viewed as a time of rebirth and renewal both of nature and of the spirit.

Goddess Ostara
by Johannes Gehrts
 What's In A Name?
Considerable debate exists among branches within Wicca and, especially, among Neo-Pagans for the name of the holiday. In all of these traditions, the term “Vernal Equinox” is acceptable.
For some Wiccans and neo-Pagans, the formal name for the holiday is Ostara (alternatively spelled Eostara).  The name derives from Eostre, the pre-Christian European goddess of the moon (in some traditions of the dawn) and the main goddess of feminine attributes. Oestre takes her name from the Greek οστρος (technically speaking meaning a biting fly but in referring to sexual desire). The ancient Germanic tribes adapted this into the name Ostara.
It should be noted that other neo-Pagans and some Wiccans disapprove of calling the holiday Ostara. As the Wicca 101 website explains:


The point here, though, is not that one or the other tradition is correct or incorrect but rather that differences of opinion among traditions exist.
some Pagan traditions began referring to the Vernal Equinox as Oestara. Historically, this is incorrect. Oestara is a lunar holiday, honoring a lunar Goddess, at the Vernal Full Moon. Hence, the name "Oestara" is best reserved to the nearest Esbat, rather than the Sabbat itself.

Ostara's Connection to Easter and May Day
Fraya amulet
6th Century CE, Sweden
Ostara long predates Easter. Indeed, in Biblical times, Easter was never celebrated as a holiday. The first known celebration of Easter did not take place until the middle of the 2nd Century when Melito, the Bishop of Sardis,  mentioned in a sermon that people in Sardis held a celebration of Christ's resurrection around the time of the Jewish Passover. What that celebration was remains unclear.
We do know that in what is now Germany and Britain, people observed with reverence the vernal equinox. Those observances, however, did not constitute a formal holiday with special rites. Instead, the vernal equinox represented the beginning of Spring, and it was the coming of the season that was actually celebrated through the worship in various forms of the fertility goddess Ostara. In Norse mythology, the coming of spring was associated with the fertility goddess Fraya in similar fashion. 
Much more formalized worship took place for the holiday of  Naw-Rúz  that falls on the first day of the vernal equinox. This was not a pagan holiday as Ostara was, but rather the worship of the Zoroastrians (Parsees) who lived in the areas that once had been the Persian Empire. People celebrated Naw-Rúz  from as far east Afghanistan to as far west as Greece, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean coast and islands, including the areas in which the apostles and other early Christian missionaries preached. As discussed in the blog on Naw-Rúz, the Church consciously repurposed many of the traditions of  Naw-Rúz to coincide with Easter (for example, the tradition of the Easter Egg in place of the Naw-Rúz  Egg, etc.).
In both Ostara and Naw-Rúz , considerable symbolism rests on the victory of light over darkness as the days grow longer and longer. The Church was easily able to repurpose to symbolize Jesus (as the Light) over death (darkness).
The Church in the Germanic lands and Britain simply repurposed Ostara worship at the vernal equinox into Easter traditions. For example, it is from both Ostara worship in Germany and Britain and in Fraya worship in Norse mythology,  that we get the Easter Bunny. Because of their extreme fertility, hares are associated with the Norse goddess Fraya and rabbits are seen as symbols of fecundity and, therefore,  the season of rebirth associated with Ostara.  In time, the Persian tradition of the Naw-Rúz egg became mixed with the rabbit tradition and the Easter Bunny brought eggs.

Erecting the May Pole
Furth-in-Wald, Germany
Other rites associated with these earlier traditions were repurposed by the Church not to Easter but to the folk customs of May Day. For example, in both Germanic Ostara rites and the rites associated with the Zoroastrian  Naw-Rúz, bonfires were lit (or in the case of the latter, still are lit).

In Norse mythology, tree worship surrounded rites of the season (each species of tree had its own diety associated with it). We see these still in northern European May Day bonfires. Similarly, the male principle associated with this comes in the raising of the May Pole (in German, Maibaum -- literally May Tree).
Etymological Ties of the Word Ostara
Etymologically, the name Ostara or Eostara can be seen in modern English in the word estrus (when female livestock were under the influence of Eostre and, therefore, in heat) and estrogen (in British English oestrogen, the primary female hormone).
It is also the source of the name of the holiday Easter in English and in German (Ostern). Indeed, in Old English, the name of the pagan goddess and the Christian holiday are identical:  Ēostre.
It may be worth noting that in Greek, the name for Easter – Πάσχα (Paskha) – derives not from the pagan goddess but from the Aramaic. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, Easter is פֶּסחא Pasa, which itself is derived from the Hebrew פֶּסַח Pesa -- the name Judaism still uses for the first two nights of Passover (as the Last Supper was Jesus’ Pesa meal). In Latin, all Latin-based languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan) and several other languages (Danish, Welsh, Gaelic, Russian, Khazakh, Finnish), the name for Easter is derived from the Greek. For more on the Christian holiday of Easter, please see my blog post at

http://davidvictorvector.blogspot.com/2012/04/easter-and-pascha.html

Alban Eilir
In the pre-Christian Celtic tradition, the vernal equinox was called Alban Eilir (Welsh for “Light of the Spring”). This is the name still used for the holiday in modern druidic traditions, primarily in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Lady Day
Some Wiccans and Neo-Pagans use the phrase “Lady Day” to refer to the holiday. This is meant to honor the feminine principle – the Goddess – inherent in the fertility of the spring season.  This is also arguably a repurposing of the Roman Catholic Feast Day of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin (also called “Our Lady’s Day”) which falls on March 25. It should be noted that some neo-Pagan traditions historically celebrated their own Lady Day on March 25 to avoid persecution or heresy charges by aligning with the surrounding Roman Catholic holiday. In some neo-Pagan, Lady Day is still observed on March 25 as a result. 
Ostara Observance
Wiccans and Neo-Pagans alike generally observe Ostara through worship of the Goddess or Feminine Force. In some traditions, this involves a formal ceremony, often in the woods. For many other traditions, this is done in a more informal manner through communing with nature, especially through walking through the woods and, in manner traditions, the ritual planting of an herb garden.
Ostara altar
Many Neo-Pagans have traditions involving the lingam (the egg) including decorating eggs and lingam hunts for children.
At home, Wiccans and many Neo-Pagans set up an Ostara Altar. This usually includes spring flowers. These often live flowers in pots that are later planted in gardens at the end of the holiday (although many people do use cut flowers as well).


 Ostara altar
Most altars include symbols of animals giving birth. To symbolize the birth of birds, people place a basket of eggs on the altar. To symbolize the birth of mammals,  a chalice of milk is set on the altar (since mammals who have just given birth began to lactate). Often the milk is mixed with honey since honey represents abundance. Some traditions include special crystals such as moonstone, associated with Oestre. On some altars, worshipers light a candle or set a brazier with an open flame, as fire represents the coming season of light. 
Because the vernal equinox is a time of complete balance, some Wiccans and Neo-Pagans use symmetrical decorations. These include things such as a black and a white candle or a black and white stone to represent the balance of light and dark. Ladybugs and other animals with symmetrical patterns are sometimes used as decorations, and so on.
Conclusion
As with all of my posts on religion, this piece is meant only as a general source of information. Since the traditions for Ostara are so varied, please be aware that many, many different rites and practices exist that I have not mentioned here.
Please also note that much more on Naw-Rúz  is explained on the Naw-Rúz  post that will go up later this week.  Finally, much more information on Easter will appear closer to Easter.

Blessed Ostara!

Want to Know More?
Kristina Benson (2008), Wiccan Holidays: A Celebration of the Wicca Year.
“Celebrating Ostara: The Spring Equinox,” The Wiccan Life, http://thewiccalife.blogspot.com/2011/01/celebrating-ostara-spring-equinox_23.html
Carole Cusack (2007), “The Goddess Eostre: Bede’s Text and Contemporary Pagan Traditions,” Pomegranate, 9:1, pp. 22-40.


“Lady Day: The Vernal Equinox,” Wicca 101, http://www.unc.edu/~reddeer/holydays/00_ladyday.html
Edain McCoy (2002), Ostara: Customs, Spells & Rituals for the Rites of Spring.
Ashleen O’Gaeo (2004), Celebrating the Seasons of Life: Samhain to Ostara.
Rowan Pendragon, "Blessed Ostara!" One Witch's Way: http://onewitchsway.com/2010/03/blessed-ostara/

Leo Ruickbie, “Spring Equinox (Eostre/Ostara), Witchology: The History of Wicca and Witchcraft, http://www.witchology.com/contents/march/ostara.php


Clip Art Sources

Opening Blessed Ostara egg: http://spiritblogger.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/spirit-message-of-the-day-ostara-the-spring-equinox-2010/

Goddess Ostara illustraiton by Johannes Gehrts: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/66/Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg/220px-Ostara_by_Johannes_Gehrts.jpg

6th Century Fraya amulet: http://www.goddessgift.net/images/freya-norse-statue-SS-NFR.jpg

Ostara with rabbit by Helen Nelson Reed: http://evagordon.blogspot.com/2011/05/full-moon-interview-with-domesticated.html?zx=8321f03afb7aa742

May Pole erection in Germany: http://www.pastritztaler.de/maibaum.html

Ostara altar 1: http://onewitchsway.com/2010/03/blessed-ostara/

Ostara altar 2: http://0.tqn.com/d/paganwiccan/1/7/u/8/-/-/IsadoraOstaraAltar.jpg

Blessed Ostara closing image: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_klMaqzXofyw/TSor0nY47jI/AAAAAAAAAQs/phAtiTGKmjU/s1600/ostara3.jpg