Curious Nature: Is the equinox a time to celebrate?
What will you do to celebrate at 9:09 p.m. Wednesday? In Japan, Buddhist peoples celebrate Higan for a week surrounding this date, honoring their ancestors and reflecting on the path to enlightenment. The Chumash people of California celebrate this date with a ceremony that shifts the people’s focus from the secular issues of the growing season to the spiritual issues of communal unity. It is the date of the Pagan rite of Thanksgiving, also known as Mabon, “Harvest Home” and a variety of other names: a time to give thanks for the harvest and sunlight and to make preparations for upcoming winter and darkness.
If you had been around for the use of the French Revolutionary Calendar (1793 to 1805), you would be celebrating New Year’s Day on this date. The significance for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere is that this moment marks the beginning of fall and is also known as the autumnal equinox. Since it also marks the beginning of spring in the Southern Hemisphere, scientists call this moment the September or southward equinox.
Many societies of the past placed great importance on the equinoxes, observable to us as structures that give a visual display of this celestial happening. The Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico, was constructed so that a series of shadows appear as a descending serpent on the northern staircase during sunset on the equinoxes. In Loughcrew, Ireland, ancient peoples (about 4000 B.C.) constructed Cairn T, a stone passage with drawings that are illuminated on these precise dates. Stonehenge and other stone structures in Britain and some found in the United States also display solar patterns that indicate their former use in the prediction and possible celebration of the equinoxes.
Now that most of us live in communities that are separated from the harvest, at least on a hands-on, daily basis, and our electric lights keep us from the full impact of dwindling daylight, many of us don’t even take note of the equinoxes, and we may not even know what will happen at the precise moment of 9:09 p.m. (Mountain Daylight Time) on Wednesday. This is when the center of the sun will be directly over the Earth’s equator. Since the Earth’s axis is on a 23.44 degree tilt in comparison with its orbit, this only happens twice a year.
The name “equinox” comes from two Latin words and translates as “equal night” because on the days surrounding the equinox, we have approximately 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. But actually, the precise day when 12 hours pass between sunrise and sunset differs for each location on Earth and is called the equilux. Here in Eagle County, this 24-hour period goes from noon to noon on Saturday and Sunday. What does occur on the equinox is a night of equal length as our latitude partners in the Southern Hemisphere, cities such as Hastings, New Zealand, and Valdivia, Chile (11 hours, 51 minutes of night).
This year, our September equinox is special because it occurs within hours of the full moon (called the harvest moon). This last occurred in 1991 and won’t happen again until 2029. Adding to the excitement are Jupiter and Uranus, both in their closest, brightest positions on this same night.
So, what will you do to honor the change of the seasons, the passage of the sun and the coming of more dark than light? It doesn’t have to be a formal celebration, but perhaps you will want to take a few minutes to reflect on what this shift may means for your life or to give thanks for the fruits of your personal harvest over the summer.