Many cultures around the world hold celebrations on or close to the September equinox every year. The date changes slightly due to it being based on the movement of celestial bodies rather than our modern calendar, with this year’s festival due to be marked on September 22nd. So what is an equinox? In simple terms, it is the date on which the sun shines directly on the equator, resulting in a day and night of equal length everywhere in the world. There are two each year, one in spring (the vernal equinox) and one at the beginning of autumn (the autumnal equinox) – in the Southern hemisphere the reverse designations are used due to their seasons being the opposite of ours.
Traditionally, these two days have been understood to mark the change of seasons – from winter to spring and from summer to autumn. No matter what region people live in, or what culture or religion they follow, they have always understood the importance of the seasons for their lives. And such transitional times have always been used as times of reflection and planning. So perhaps that is why the two days every year that mark the equinox are associated with festivals in so many current and past cultures.
In the case of the autumnal equinox, festivals have focused on expressing thanks for the good summer weather that brings the ripening of crops and fruit, and on looking ahead to the darker and colder days of winter. Let’s take a look at a few of these festivals in a bit more detail.
In Pagan religious traditions, the autumnal equinox is referred to as Mabon. It is one of the sun festivals that divide the year and marks a traditional harvest festival. It is a time for people to complete projects, be thankful for harvest and start preparing for winter. Sharing gifts and produce with those less fortunate is also an important tradition. Because of the equal day and night, it is seen as a time of balance – the ideal opportunity to reflect on your life, count your blessings and refocus on what is most important to you. In England, as with the other major astronomical festivals, pagans gather to witness sunrise at the ancient site of Stonehenge.
In Japan, as well as marking the end of the autumn harvest the festival is also about ancestors. It is part of a Buddhist festival known as Ohigan, with the equal day and night said to mark the time when spirits of ancestors are able to travel to Nirvana. It is a public holiday and people visit and decorate the graves of their ancestors as part of the celebrations. In many ways, this element is similar to the Mexican Day of the Dead, which is celebrated slightly later in the year. The festival was also used as a national celebration of former emperors and members of the imperial family. As well as thinking about ancestors, however, people meditate on their own lives and gather with living family members.
The Ancient Greeks also understood the equinox as a time when movement between worlds is possible and marked the date as the time when the Goddess Persephone would return to the underworld to be with her husband Hades. People took the opportunity to reflect on their successes or failures over the previous months.
As the Christian religion expanded, it co-opted numerous existing festivals to aid acceptance among the population and ensure a smoother transition to the new religion. The autumn equinox is no exception, and the Christian feast day of Michaelmas (St Michael and All Angels) is celebrated the week after the equinox. Michaelmas has many of the same traditions as Equinox celebrations in other religions and cultures, including gathering fruit and nuts and eating a fattened goose to symbolise a successful harvest. It was also seen as a time of transition – in medieval England, for example, the traditional employment fairs, where people could get new employment or find a new employer, were all held in the days and weeks immediately after Michaelmas.
It is clear that ever since humans have understood astronomy enough to recognise the existence of the autumnal equinox, it has been a significant date in the calendar. The examples above show that cultural and religious traditions from throughout the world, and throughout history, have tended to hold equinox festivals with very similar themes. These are celebrating the products of nature, reflecting on life, family and mortality, and preparing for the winter ahead. All of these are universal human concerns, and it is fascinating how this date has been taken as an opportunity to think about them in so many different times and places.