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The Autumn Equinox

Written by Kimberly Dennin


This year (2020) the autumn equinox falls on September 22. Every year there are two equinoxes (autumn and spring) and two solstices (winter and summer). The equinoxes occur when night and day are roughly the same length, whereas the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year and summer solstice is the longest. These events and the seasons are caused by the tilt in the Earth’s axis. When the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun, sunlight hits it directly causing longer and warmer days. At the same time the southern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun causing shorter and colder days. The equinoxes are defined as the days that the sun is on the equator at local noon. Day still appears to be slightly longer on the equinoxes because the atmosphere bends light making it look like the sun is above the horizon when it is really below. 


Holidays and Traditions

The autumn equinox is often associated with the harvest and there are a variety of holidays and traditions that fall on or around the equinox. General traditions include feasts celebrated with a goose that had been fattened on the stubble of the fields after the harvest and the use of ginger in all aspects of the menu from gingerbread to ginger beer.


Pyramid of Kukulcan

The pyramid of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo, is a step pyramid at Chich’en Itza, Mexico. During the equinox it appears that a snake made of light slithers down the steps and connects a sculpted tail to a sculpted snake head at the bottom. Legend has it that Kukulcan, an ancient feathered serpent god, descends from the sky on the equinox. He returns to commune with worshipers and provides blessings for a full harvest and good health. Kukulcan then enters the sacred water and bathes before continuing to the underworld. The pyramid was also built to be a physical representation of the Maya Calendar.   


Snake of Sunlight via Atlas Obscura

Greece

In ancient Greece there is the famous myth of Persephone. Persephone was a goddess who was abducted from her mother Demeter, the goddess of harvest, and taken to the underworld by Hades to become his wife. Hades and Demeter made an agreement that every fall Persephone would return to the underworld and spend three months with Hades. During this time Demeter refused to use her powers to make plants grow, explaining why we experience winter.


Stonehenge via History

UK

In the UK people have given thanks at fall harvest festivals since pagan times. These festivals usually occurred on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon, the Full Moon closest to the autumn equinox, and these traditions were brought to America to form the basis of Thanksgiving. Another tradition involved taking the last sheaf of corn harvested to represent the ‘spirit of the field’. The corn was made into a doll and drenched with water representing rain or burned to represent the death of the grain spirit. Large wickerwork figures were also built to represent a vegetation spirit and burned in mock sacrifice. This tradition still survives today and has been popularized as the burning man tradition in the US. In addition, followers of Wicca religions, druids, and pagans still gather at Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Castlerigg in Keswick to watch the sunrise on the equinox. 


Japan

In Japan, Buddhists celebrate the Six Days of Higan/Higan-e during both equinoxes. This has been a national holiday since the Meiji period (1868-1912) where people remember the dead by visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves. Higan means “other shore”, referring to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. 


Harvest Moon Festival via Britannica

China

Chinese and Vietnamese communities celebrate the Moon Festival on the day of the Harvest Moon. This celebration began during the Shang Dynasty where people celebrated the successful harvest of rice and wheat and made offerings to the moon. Today people celebrate the abundance of summer’s harvest by serving mooncakes filled with lotus, sesame seeds, duck egg, or dried fruit. 


Hindu

The Hindu festival of Navaratri is celebrated for several days in autumn during the first half of the Hindu calendar month Ashvin (September and October). This celebration honors the divine feminine Devi (Durga). 


Statue of goddess Durga via YourStory

Poland

In Poland, people traditionally celebrate the Feast of Greenery. During the Feast of Greenery people bring bouquets and food for blessing by a priest. These are then used for medicine or are kept for the following years harvest.


Mabon

More modern celebrations include the neopagan celebration of Mabon. This celebration comes from the American author Aidan Kelley who added new names to the six Sabbots (ancient Celtic lore based on the cycles of the sun) and added two new ones around the equinoxes. Mabon is based in the ceremony around the Greek myth of Persephone and celebrates the second harvest and start of winter preparations. It involves giving thanks to sunlight and respect to the impending dark. 


Christianity

Christianity replaced many early Pagan celebrations with Christianized observance. The closest celebration to the autumn equinox is Michaelmas, also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels, on September 29. It is a minor festival now, but in England it was used to mark when servants were paid their wages after the harvest and workers could look for new jobs at employment fairs. 


 

References

“What Is An Equinox?” National Geographic,

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/09/150922-equinox-autumn-seasons-

sun-moon-space-science/

“September Equinox Holidays and Traditions” Time and Date,

https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/september-equinox-customs.html

“Fall Equinox” History,

https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/fall-equinox

“Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chich’en Itza” Atlas Obscura,

https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/fall-equinox

“Solstice and Equinox Traditions” Spiritual Humanism,

https://spiritualhumanism.org/solstice-and-equinox/

"Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chich'en Itza" Atlas Obscura,

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/pyramid-kukulcan-chichen-itza

"Stonehenge" History, https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/stonehenge

"Shine On, Harvest Moon Festival" Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/story/shine-on-

harvest-moon-festival

"India celebrates colours of Navratri, grandeur of Durga Puja, and triumph of good over evil"

YourStory, https://yourstory.com/2018/10/india-celebrate-navratri-durga-puja-dussehra

"Autumnal Equinox 2020: The First Day of Fall" The Old Farmer's Almanac,

https://www.almanac.com/content/first-day-fall-autumnal-equinox




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