The Autumn Equinox marks the beginning of autumn on September 23rd. This year the precise time autumn begins is in the morning at 4:21 A.M, when the sun appears to cross the celestial equator from north to south.
The word equinox means equal night, when the night and day are almost exactly the same length of time. This occurs twice a year, once at the start of spring, and then again to signal the beginning of autumn in late September.
Throughout history the autumn equinox has given rise to a number of traditions. In Greek mythology the arrival of autumn is associated with the goddess Persephone returning to the underworld to be with her husband, Hades. This event was seen as a time to reflect on recent successes and failures and to carry out rituals to protect you against the coming months.
The Pagan calendar shows that the autumn equinox is marked with Mabon. This is one of the eight Sabbats (a celebration based on the cycles of the sun), which celebrates the second harvest, gives thanks for the days of sunlight, and helps to prepare for the coming of winter. Mabon, as with many Pagan festivals, was replaced by the Christian church with Christianised observances. It was replaced by Michaelmas (also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels), which falls a few days after the equinox, on September 29.
It isn’t just the Northern Hemisphere’s countries that celebrate the coming of autumn. In China it is marked with the Moon Festival. At this time the abundance of the summer’s harvest is celebrated with the making of mooncake, which is baked full of lotus, sesame seeds, and a duck egg or dried fruit.
In Japan, the Buddhist celebration of Higan, or Higan-e, is a week long observance which occurs during both the September and March equinoxes. Higan means “the other shore”, and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. The period of the equinoxes is so important in Buddhism that both weeks have been national holidays since the Meiji period (1868-1912).
All in all, then, there is a lot more to this change of season than a new colouring of the leaves and a chill in the air!
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.