March 20th – The Burning of Father Winter

Today is the first day of spring; the daffodils are in bloom and bud casings litter the floors below the magnolia trees. Soon the cherry trees will add further colour to the City’s parks. In Buentoille, today, like all days that mark the passing of the four seasons, is a municipal holiday, celebrated in a number of idiosyncratic ways.

The most high-profile of these will be held tonight, after the lamplighters have made their rounds. Folk will gather up as many wind-fallen branches and twigs from the City and its environs as possible throughout the day, alongside broken pieces of wooden furniture, garden fencing and other such wooden detritus of the winter months. The collections go on throughout the winter whenever a tree falls or someone throws out an old worm-eaten chair, but today there will be a final rush, a gathering of even the smallest twigs.

Whereas winter is the oldest month, spring is a time of renewal, and out of the old must come the new; the lumber, which has been piled up in stores to dry near Holy Market Square, will now be formed into a large sculpture of Father Winter, a wolf-headed skeletal figure with a large fur cloak and long spindly fingers. This year’s sculpture is planned to be about 35 feet tall, the main body being made from the larger pieces of lumber, the cloak made from bundles of twigs. Around the base of the figure will be laid all those pieces of wood that are of too poor quality to be used in the main sculpture. Shortly after darkness falls on the City, the wood stacked around the figure will be doused in ritual oil and Father Winter will be set alight. When the morning comes the ashes will be swept up and scattered as fertiliser onto the fields that surround the City; from the old will come the new.

Other rituals take place around the fire. Some folks will dress as Father Winter, usually thin men, in order to mimic the skeletal appearance. They will skirt around the darkness on the outer edge of the assembled crowd, approaching those who stray too far from the fire in a menacing fashion. Other Buentoillitants wearing garlands of spring flowers will periodically chase off these Winter figures with burning torches, and at the end of the night they will gather them all up and throw their wolf masks into the fire, revealing their faces painted as Greene Men underneath.

Another holiday custom observed by many Buentoillitants is the baking of vernal pastries. These are usually a filo pastry casing surrounding some kind of spring greens, but variations include wild garlic leaves, peas and young nettles, or some mixture of all three. Sweet versions are also made which use pistachio nuts; the general rule is to make the filling as green as possible, in order to welcome in the verdant new life that the spring heralds. In modern times, some cooks choose to use food colouring to also make the pastry itself green, though this is considered gauche by many, especially in the east.

For those farmers or gardeners who have unsewn land still at this time of year, it is considered an auspicious time to turn or till the soil, or to plant seeds, and if any rain falls today some collect it, store it, then sprinkle it over plants throughout the growing season. A study conducted in 1945 found no correlation or causation between this process and plant growth, but that does not stop proponents of the process.

The length of time that the fire in Holy Market Square burns for is similarly thought to have an effect on the amount of sunshine the spring has on offer. In 1423 the fire burned out incredibly quickly due to torrential rains from the Darkening Storm that coincided with the festival that year. The figure of Father Winter was essentially unscathed and the fire could not be rekindled for many days after. According to Indaris Ophelim, writing in 1514, this led to catastrophic effects: ‘The grate goldenne orb was lityle sene that yere, and indyde ther was snow on thy grownd wel into June. Menee folke went hungerd.’ Whilst there was a rather poor harvest that year, no contemporary sources have corroborated Ophelim’s claims of snow in summer.

Most of all, today is a day of anticipatory happiness; the smell of spring is in the air and thoughts turn to long walks and picnics by babbling brooks in the sunshine. May the fire burn well.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Orderlies of Good Health’s Day of Supping the Breeze
  • The Cold Mistress’ Festival of One Last Hurrah for Winter
  • The Tiling of the Field
  • Enphilim Danilli’s Vernal Pastry Baking Competition