Honoring the Autumn Equinox

The sun crosses the celestial equator. Trees begin to transform into their foliage states. Brisk gusts of wind slice through the sweltering heat and the sun shifts its love onto a different batch of Earth’s bounty. The autumnal equinox serves as a balance of sorts, and marks the sign of yet another new beginning. Nights and days reach equilibrium of sunlight as the sun wanes and prepares for another winter.

Before the frosty season begins however, autumn is celebrated. BTR looks at how some cultures will rejoice this year’s equinox on Sept 23.

Japanese

In Japan, seasonal equinoxes are symbolic of the transitions of life. Japanese Buddhists believe that the land of the afterlife is due west. Due to this belief, and the fact that during the equinox the sun sets directly west, Japanese people take the time to visit the graves of their ancestors and leave flowers–a period they call “Ohigan.”

Ohigan literally translates as “the other shore.” In Buddhism, this is a frequently used metaphor for departing from a shore of ignorance, hatred, and greed to the other shore of peace and nirvana. Many temples in Japan hold ceremonies in late September to “express gratitude for being awakened to wisdom and compassion” and to reflect on their efforts towards generosity, patience, morality, meditation, and wisdom.

Approximately 91 million Japanese are Buddhist, and 51 percent of all Japanese practice Shinto, a native religion that teaches respect for nature. The two faiths often blend into a larger belief system where autumnal and spring equinoxes are widely celebrated.

Christians

Christian followers do not actually celebrate the autumnal equinox as it is marked on the calendar, but instead celebrate “Michaelmas,” a Catholic feast for the Archangel Michael. This occasion is celebrated on Sept 29, a date that some places actually mark as the beginning of fall. As with several other Christian holidays, it is believed that the feast was positioned so near to the autumnal equinox in an attempt to draw faithful Christians away from pagan traditions.

Culinary customs for Michaelmas include eating nuts, as well as a fattened goose. In fact, in the past Michaelmas Eve was known as Crack-Nut Day and nuts were cracked in church. Michaelmas has also been known as Pack Rag Day due to the vast number of people that had finally received their wages after the long summer harvest and were busy changing their jobs in accordance with the new season. Employment fairs were once an integral part of the celebration.

Chinese & Vietnamese

While many cultures look to the sun when it comes to celebrating the equinoxes, China and Vietnam commemorate the changing of seasons in accordance with the moon. The Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, is observed on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month (on a lunar calendar, of course). This is when a full moon is nearest to the equinox.

On the day of the festival, families join together to watch the full moon, eat moon cakes, and sing lunar poems. For couples, the Moon Festival is seen as a romantic event, where lovers can spend the night gazing up at the full moon, whether they are together or apart.

Neo-Druids

On the morning of the equinox sunrise, Neo-Druids gather at Stonehenge to offer thanks for a new and bountiful harvest as well as prepare for the forthcoming darkness of winter. Druidism, or Druidry, is a spirituality or religion that generally promotes harmony and worship of nature, as well as respect for all beings including the environment.

In addition to celebrating the cycles of their own lives, Druids believe in the importance of celebrating the cycles of the natural world. The Sacred Calendar that Druids follow marks the solstices and equinoxes, along with the phases of the moon. The pagan followers equate the passage of nature’s seasons into sacraments, and believe that these rites “bring them into harmony with the tides of the world.” On the 23rd of September, England’s “New Age Tribes” including neo-druids, neo-pagans, and Wiccans all gather to see the sunrise above the stones.

In the West, autumnal celebrations are more spread out, and many people do not mark a particular day as the beginning of fall. Instead, throughout September and October, fairs and festivals are often organized. Community members commonly brim streets and storefronts with the hues of fall and imagery of pumpkins and bountiful harvests, welcoming holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whether it’s consumer encouragement, harvest festivals, or ancient traditions, this shift of season is yet again welcomed as a period of change and a new beginning.

Featured photo courtesy of Bastian.

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