Fun facts for the March Equinox

My article on the Winter Solstice was such a surprise hit I thought I’d follow up and do some research into the coming equinox, which is autumn for us down south and spring for those up north. The March equinox is the day when the sun lies directly over the equator, rising due east and setting due west. This year it falls on Saturday March 20. This is the same regardless of where you are in the world, but for us down south it marks the shortening of the days as we head into winter, while up north the days grow longer as they go into summer. 

Through the ages this has been an important time in many cultures, going back way before our own calendar or even the invention of writing. This importance has worked its way into modern times as it is used to set the dates for Easter, the Jewish holy time of Passover or Pesach as well as the Hindu Holi festival. 

I find Easter especially interesting because of the way it has been influenced by older pagan traditions. It is also the only one of our public holidays that occurs on a different date each year – it always happens on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox, which is why Easter’s date can be any time from late March to late April.

Easter’s origin

Many of the traditions we associate with Easter come from far before Christianity. Although there is some disagreement, the name is believed by some to come from Eostre, who was an Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess in pre-christian England who was celebrated at the start of spring with baskets of eggs given as offerings,  

We now associate Easter with the Easter bunny and Easter eggs, both of which have themes linked to spring and rebirth – after all, rabbits are famous for breeding and eggs hatch to produce new life.

The oldest written reference to Eostre was by an 8th century monk, who wrote that the month in which Christians would celebrate the resurrection of Jesus was called “Eosturmonath”, named for the goddess. Even though the people had adopted the new Christian beliefs, the monk wrote, they continued to refer to the time by the old name. 

Upside down and back to front

The theme of rebirth makes sense for the resurrection, but all the references to spring got me thinking back to our own spring day traditions and remembering how we used to plant a tree at school each Arbor Day. With most March equinox traditions originating in the northern hemisphere, it got me thinking about us down south? Should we also be celebrating spring as our days grow shorter? 

It turns out there are two schools of thought within modern paganism, which is an incredibly diverse label spanning wiccans, druids, New Age occultists and even aging shoo wah hippies. There are those who prefer to stick to the traditional dates for each festival as they were originally set down in the northern hemisphere. Then there are those who believe things should be reversed to account for our own seasons. As many of these beliefs are tied to nature and the seasons, they argue that the actual seasons are more important than the traditional dates.

I didn’t plan to pick a side, and very much want to leave this open to your own interpretation, but I find myself leaning towards the seasonal interpretation. Now that I’m living on a farm I feel closer to nature and the seasons and better appreciate what the seasons mean: the summer birds are starting to head north as the landscape changes colour. Humans are busy too, with the Franschhoek valley frantically harvesting the season’s grapes and other crops.

Equinox in the Land of the Rising Sun

Japan marks the day with the national public holiday Shunbun no Hi, known as Vernal Equinox Day in English. It was set up shortly after World War II as a non-religious holiday for admiring nature and appreciating all living things, but it has roots going far deeper. Before that, the day was called Shunki kōrei-sai and was a festival for worshipping the imperial ancestors. The imperial traditions have faded, but those roots linger today in that many people visit graves of loved ones, often sweeping the grave site and leaving offerings of flowers and fresh food. It is also a day to spend with families.

Japanese Buddhists call the equinox celebration Ohigan. They believe the land of the dead is due west and that the border between that world and ours is thinnest on the equinoxes, making it an ideal time to venerate ancestors. The name Ohigan comes from the Japanese term for “the other side” of the Sanzu River, which is their mythological river of the dead. 

Going even further back, before Buddhism’s influence on Japanese culture, the March equinox was a time to pray for the harvest ahead, while the autumn equinox was for celebrating the harvest that has just been. For those living in cities today, this theme is carried over into cleaning the house (spring cleaning!) and either completing something already started or starting on something new. It is also a time for contemplation and meditation for many.

Appreciation of nature is an important part of the Japanese celebration of the equinox: Credit: PixaBay

Dawning of the Persian new year 

The March equinox marks the start of the Persian new year, Nowruz. This ancient custom dates back 4,000 years and is still celebrated by about 300 million people worldwide. It is celebrated as a non-religious national holiday in Iran, but it is a holy day for Zoroastrians, Baháʼís and certain Muslim communiteis across parts of Asia.

Unsurprisingly there are heaps of myths and legends for the origin of Nowruz, but one that caught my eye was of a Persian king who saved mankind from a winter that threatened to call all living things. The story goes that he defeated the long winter by having demons lift him up to the heavens on a throne studded with gems, where he shone like the sun. All gathered before him to praise him and declare it now ruz, which means “new day”. 

Despite being so far apart in the world, the Nowruz traditions are surprisingly similar to many of those in Japan and will also sound quite familiar to us Westerners. Leading up to Nowruz is a time for cleaning the home or “shaking the house”. It’s also a time for buying new clothes for the New Year as well as flowers, especially hyacinths and tulips.

Like in Japan, it is also a time for visiting family, but they take it a little further by including friends and neighbours too. Traditionally younger people visit their elders first, with the elders returning the visits later.

The bright colours of a Now Ruz celebration in Tajikistan. Credit: Ilhoms, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Make it your own day

I also find it fascinating how some themes keep cropping up that are so fundamentally human. Spending time with family and loved ones and appreciating our surroundings are appropriate for any time of year. On that note, I’m going to wrap this up and pop off to visit my mom!

Here’s a final fun fact to impress (or annoy!) at dinner parties: 
I wanted to describe the equinoxes as the two days of the year where the day and night are the same length, but this isn’t precisely true. Because of the way that light bends through and around the atmosphere, a little bit like a lens, what we see as the sunset is actually already the sun behind the horizon. For this reason, if you really want to be precise, the actual day that sunset and sunrise are exactly 12 hours apart is a few days earlier and depends on where you are in the world. This day is called the equilux.
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