Wherein the Greeks know chugging wine and pleasing the walking dead is the key to a successful Spring Break.
After a particularly bitter stretch of late winter that saw temperatures dip well below 0˚ F (around here we tend to complain when they’re even a single degree below 32˚), it’s a relief to return to the warmer weather and tornados of Spring. Emily Dickinson captures the spirit of the season particularly well when she writes,
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
Perhaps Ms. Dickinson wrote the last line from Fort Lauderdale—or it might simply be my own worthless interpolation—but it nonetheless captures the mindset of tens of thousands of college students: the sight of the first robin of spring means it’s time for a week of booze, sex and melanoma.
Students who haven’t made the most of their required world history / Western Civ courses might be surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks agreed (except for the skin cancer). Anthesteria, the Greek festival of Dionysius, had it all: large quantities of wine, partying with family and friends (and masters), and, as an early precursor of massively hungover college students, the souls of the dead.
Red Red Wine Goes to My Head
The Dionysian festival of Anthesteria didn’t actually occur in the Spring (although it did incorporate decorating with spring flowers), but instead fell between the full moons of January and February. Anthesteria did, however, look toward Spring by celebrating the opening of the pithoi of wine that had been maturing since the previous season.
On the first day of the festival, Pithoigia (“Jar Opening”), the wine jars were opened and offerings were made to Dionysius, the god of wine and wine-making (as well as other fruit and orchards and, probably not coincidentally, ecstasy and insanity). Entire households—including slaves and flower-bedecked children—drank in celebration.
On the second day, Choës, people dressed as satyrs (lusty woodland gods with a man’s upper body and a horse’s hind legs and tail) and maenads (“raving ones,” women who ecstatically followed Dionysius and, in Euripides’ play The Bacchae, tore apart the Theban king Pentheus) and traveled to friend’s houses and clubs to drink (perhaps playing retsina pong and doing amphora stands). At the same time, in the Senate house the basilinna (or ceremonial religious queen) was ritually married to Dionysius (whose role was played, according to Ludwig Deubner, by the archon basileus, the head magistrate and real-life husband of the basilinna).
These days weren’t all drinking and ritual marriages: they were also considered unlucky because the keres (souls of the dead) were freed from the underworld and roamed the streets. People therefore painted their doors with tar and chewed buckthorn or hawthorn to keep evil at bay, and offered libations at the graves of ancestors. I like to think these rituals were similar to a living/semi-sober spring breaker holding the hair of an undead/hungover student as she expels the evil of the previous night into the porcelain god (or her friend’s lap, or the sidewalk, or…).
The final day, Chytroi, involved offering food to the undead and Hermes (who moved between the living and dead) to convince them to return to Hades. This might resemble weary beach town residents offering spring breakers free coffee and bus rides to the airport for the first flight to “Get the Heck Outta Here.”
You Never Give Me Your Money
It’s easy to see what the Greeks gained from Anthestria: Dionysius was appeased, thereby keeping the wine flowing, and Hermes was convinced to go all Rawhide with the souls of the dead (“Move ’em on, head ’em up, head ’em up, move ’em on…”). What, though, is the benefit to modern cities for hosting Spring Breakers?
Interestingly, an article in The Atlantic concludes the answer is, “Not much.” While a 2008 study notes Spring Breaker spent nearly $1 billion per year in Florida and Texas alone, the tendency of poor college students to pack multiple suntan lotion-marinated people into each hotel room meant far lower sales-and-tax revenue than one might expect. The primary growth during the period is instead in crime and non-criminal citations, leading Derek Thompson to summarize the main impact of the period as “more crime than tax receipts” (in fact, resort areas make a substantially greater profit from vacationing families during the summer months).
Perhaps Spring Break areas need to generate a dress code forbidding swimsuits and requiring horse’s behinds.
Image: Festival of Dionysius (1549) (Source)