The days may be getting shorter, the temperatures may be dropping slightly, and a blanket of leaves may be covering your once-green lawn. Beginning September 22nd, it’s officially Fall. That date marks the fall equinox or the official start of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. Here’s everything you need to know about the yearly event.
What is the Fall Equinox?
According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, equinox comes from the Latin words aequus, meaning “equal,” and nox, meaning “night.” The word describes the times of the year when the number of daylight and nighttime hours in a 24-hour period are roughly equal around the world. This happens only twice a year: during the spring or vernal equinox in March and the fall equinox in September.
During an equinox, the sun shines on Earth’s equator, distributing light fairly evenly from pole to pole. The brunt of the sun’s rays hardly ever fall on the exact center of the globe thanks to the tilt of the planet, and when they do, day and night aren’t split into even 12-hour segments. If you count sunrise as starting as soon as the edge of the sun’s disc appears over the horizon, then daytime actually lasts a few minutes longer than 12 hours on the fall equinox.
When is the Equinox
The equinox can be pinpointed to an exact time on Tuesday, September 22. At 9:31 a.m. EDT, the center of the sun will line up perfectly with the Earth’s equator. Unless you live on the equator, where the sun will be directly overhead and shadows will disappear, there isn’t much to notice when this moment passes. Enjoying sunset while daylight hours are still fairly long is one way to mark the occasion. After September 22, nights will become longer until the winter solstice on December 21.
Celebrating the Equinox
For some, the Equinoxes are a time for celebration and ritual. Thousands of people stand in awe at sacred sites around the world—from the pyramids at Chichen Itza in Yucatán to Machu Picchu in Peru. Autumnal festivals play a prominent role in Native American culture, Iranian tradition, and beyond.
Many cultures also celebrate a new year at this time. During the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year holiday is 163 days after the first day of Passover. The date of Passover is set to begin the night of the full moon after the vernal equinox, so Rosh Hashanah has only a tangential relationship with the equinox. But it is the time in the Jewish faith that we give thanks for life, reflect on the year, and participate in the ritual of Tashlich, the symbolic throwing of your sins into moving water.
Japan marks the equinoxes—both of them—with a period called Ohigan (sometimes spelled O-higan). The Japanese Buddhist belief is that the land of the afterlife is due west, and during the equinoxes, the sun sets directly west. The equinoxes are also symbolic of the transitions of life. The week around each equinox is Ohigan, a time to visit the graves of one’s ancestors, to spruce up the gravesites, and to leave flowers. It is also a time of meditation and to visit living relatives.
In pagan mythology, the equinox is called Mabon, or Second Harvest. It is a time to give thanks for the summer and to pay tribute to the coming darkness. It is also a time of preparing for Samhain (October 31–November 1), the bigger pagan festival that begins winter. Some Wiccan rituals for Mabon include building an altar with harvest fruits and vegetables, meditating on balance, gathering and feasting on apples, offering apples to the goddess, sharing food, and counting one’s blessings.
China and Vietnam celebrate the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, which is on the full moon nearest to the equinox. On a lunar calendar, that is the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. It is celebrated with the usual festival activities, plus gazing at the moon and eating moon cakes. In the southern U.S., Moon Pies are often used in place of moon cakes. A similar holiday in Korea is called Chuseok.
Michaelmas is the Catholic feast of the Archangel Michael. Some traditions use this feast day to celebrate other archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael as the Feast of the Angels. The feast day is September 29, which is celebrated as the beginning of fall in some places. It is thought that the feast was set near the autumn equinox to draw the faithful away from pagan celebrations, as are several other Christian holidays. Traditions include gathering and eating nuts (which began on Holy Rood Day on September 14), and eating a fattened goose, if you could afford that luxury. In centuries past in England, it was a time of transitions, as servants were paid their wages after the harvest, and workers scrambled to find new employment contracts. The employment fairs that facilitated this custom became an opportunity for community celebration. It is also a good time to eat blackberries, as “Old Michaelmas Day” (October 10th) is traditionally the cutoff time for picking blackberries.
Neo-Druids gather at Stonehenge to watch the equinox sunrise. This happens every year, both in spring and fall. As with other pagan groups, the equinox is a time for Druids to offer thanks for a bountiful harvest and prepare for the darkness of winter.
In the West, celebrations surrounding the fall equinox are less about the equinox itself and more about the activities of fall. We have county fairs and festivals, which are scheduled around school calendars and to maximize tourism. We celebrate Halloween all out of proportion to its historic roots because it’s fun. We decorate with fall colors and harvest fruits for months at a time, and we split our holidays, celebrating the end of summer with Labor Day and giving thanks for a bountiful harvest on Thanksgiving. Together, those are all celebrations of fall.
Article information and gathered from MentalFloss.com