Do you notice the changes going on around you? These days the sun is rising a bit later and setting a little earlier. Here in Santa Ynez, lurking at the edge of the last of our lingering warm evenings is a growing chill. The metal roof on our little ranch house resounds with the reports of acorns falling from our surrounding oak trees. The past few mornings have been made cooler by the marine layer, making our dogs very frisky as they accompany me through our olive groves. In other parts of the valley crews are working diligently gathering in the last of this year’s grape harvest.
Our drought in California contributed to a very early grape harvest this year. It actually went into high gear back in early August.
Even if you aren’t spending much time outside, you’ve probably noticed the harbingers of seasonal change; Halloween displays are up in many stores, and in a few you may have already encountered arrays of Christmas ornaments. Both Earth and businesses are providing us with sure signs that the seasons are changing.
Today, September 22nd, is the “last day of summer” for us in the northern hemisphere. Fall arrives this evening, in California, at 7:29 pm PDT. If you’re living in the Eastern Time Zone, Fall arrives at 10:29 pm EDT and 9:29 CDT if you’re in the center of the country.
There are two equinoxes (autumn and spring) two solstices (summer and winter) that occur approximately on the 21st day of the last month of every quarter in the calendar year. I like think that the Equinox is also about balance. The Autumn Equinox occurs as the sun enters the astrological sign of Libra, the scales
In the language of science, an Equinox is defined as the point where the Sun appears to cross the Earth’s celestial equator from north to south. The celestial equator is the circle in the celestial sphere halfway between the celestial poles. It can be thought of as the plane of Earth’s equator projected out onto the sphere.
For those of us who are not so scientifically inclined, on the Equinox, at the equator, the center of the Sun will spend a nearly equal amount of time above and below the horizon. Now, not many of us live at the equator, so for us in the Northern Hemisphere at the Autumn Equinox, the hours of daylight are longer than night by 7 to 10 minutes.
Now you may have guessed that the word Equinox is Latin, and you’re right. It comes from two Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night). You might logically think that Equinox would mean that day and night were equal. But it is not until a couple days after the Equinox that day and night are equal. Here in Santa Ynez, CA, day and night will be equal on September 25th – 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. You can check for the exact date where you live by looking up sunrise and sunset times. The reason this doesn’t occur at the Equinox has to do with the fact that we measure sunrise and sunset as the point that the edge of the sun crosses the horizon and not the geometric center of the sun.
However, if you want to get up early on Tuesday (since the Equinox occurs on Monday evening) and if there aren’t clouds or marine layer, you will see one of the two cool astronomical alignments of the year and of both Equinoxes; the sun will rise directly in the East. Now, you need to go outside again at the end of the day at sunset and you’ll see the sun set directly in the West. This occurs only twice a year, at the Fall and Spring Equinoxes. On these two days you can pinpoint the exact cardinal directions of East and West using the sun.
The Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere is the Vernal Equinox for the southern hemisphere. Another way to say this is that when fall begins for the northern hemisphere, spring begins for the southern hemisphere. The reason the Earth’s two hemispheres have opposite seasons is related to Earth’s tilt on its axis.
As the North pole begins to tilt away from the sun, cooler weather comes to the northern hemisphere because the sun is no longer giving its direct rays to this part of our planet. In winter when the North Pole is tilted its farthest away from the sun, we have the least amount of daylight hours and the coldest weather. You can even notice the angle of the sun in the winter and easily see that it never climbs as high in the sky as it does during the summer.
The Autumn Equinox is closely associated with harvest time. September is the month of the Wine Moon, the lunar cycle when grapes are harvested, pressed and put away to become wine. The full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox is also known as the Harvest Moon, since farmers would also harvest their crops during the night with the light of the full moon to aid them. This year’s Harvest Moon was a couple of weeks ago.
Every agrarian culture I’ve read about, past or present, had a way of celebrating the year’s harvest. Today’s celebrations are the descendants of the ancient ones. Most of them were observed between the Autumn Equinox and Halloween or Samhain, on October 31st. They often link the cycles of death and life, honoring the dead as well as the harvest. In many cultures, these things are intertwined.
The word harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word harvest, which was their word for Autumn. Over time it has come to mean the season for reaping and gathering grain and other crops.
In Northern Europe, during ancient times, grain stalks were tied together symbolizing the Harvest Lord and burned. The ashes were scattered upon the earth. The Harvest Kern Baby, was made from the last sheaf of the harvest and bundled by the reapers who would proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf was dressed in a white frock decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole.
During the Middle Ages, the Christian Church replaced earlier Pagan equinox celebrations with Michaelmas, the feast of the Archangel Michael, held on Sept. 29th. The Michaelmas feast was celebrated with a well-fattened goose that had fed well on the stubble of the fields after the harvest. In many places, a there was also a tradition of special large loaves of bread made only for Michaelmas. The harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas so the new cycle of farming would begin. It was also a time for beginning new leases, rendering accounts and paying the annual dues.
The Autumn equinox was “New Year’s Day” on the French Republican Calendar, which was used from 1793 to 1805. The French monarchy was abolished and the First Republic was proclaimed on September 21, 1792, making the following day the equinox day that year, the first day of the “Republican Era” in France.
The September equinox marks the first day of Mehr or Libra in the Iranian calendar. It is also an Iranian festival called Jashne Mihragan, which dates back to the distant days of Zoroastrianism.
Here in the United States, autumn is a time to celebrate with a variety of fall and Harvest Festivals, like Danish Days this past weekend in Solvang. People enjoy fall festivals as they sense the closure to the summer season and the coming of winter. So, get out and enjoy them.