What Are Equinoxes and Solstices, and How Do They Work?
You may have heard of equinoxes and solstices before, but do you know what they are or how they work? Do you ever feel like some days are shorter than others? You may think it’s because of your busy schedule or because time rushed by while you were having fun. However, there is an astronomical reason behind these occurrences.
Equinoxes and solstices are the phenomena behind daylight hours and changes in seasons respectively. In this article, we will delve into what solstices and equinoxes are and how they are celebrated by different cultures worldwide.
What is an Equinox?
Earth’s tilt is neither too near nor too far from the sun. This results in equal hours during the day and night in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
During an equinox, neither of Earth’s poles is pointing towards the sun. At this point, the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator. If you happen to be at the equator during this time, your shadow will be at its absolute minimum.
Equinoxes occur only twice each year, in March and September. The March equinox, known as the spring or vernal equinox, occurs between March 19 and March 21. The September equinox, known as the autumnal or fall equinox, takes place between September 21 and September 24.
What is the Solstice?
Solstices are the opposite of equinoxes. They occur when the Earth’s tilt toward or away from the sun is at its maximum. Solstices occur twice a year, on June 21 and December 21. In June, the Northern hemisphere experiences a long period of daylight. This is the summer solstice. In December, during the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere experiences the total opposite: the shortest daylight period.
While the Northern Hemisphere receives long daylight hours, the Southern Hemisphere experiences the opposite. For some cultures, the equinoxes and solstices mark a significant period and coincide with critical holidays. Here is a breakdown of what winter and solstices mean to several cultures.
Pagans observe the Yule festival after the midwinter solstice in Germany and Scandinavia. The festival marks the longest night of the year and it represents the rebirth of the Sun God. In Pagan culture, the Yule festival signifies the end of a cold and dark winter and the rise of light.
In the Celtic culture, Druids (known as wise men and women) ceremoniously cut the mistletoe from the oak tree and presented it as a blessing every December. The Druids believed that the mistletoe was sacred and offered protection against evil. According to a Celtic myth, the Oak King fights the Holly King every winter solstice. The former represents light, while the latter represents darkness. The Oak King triumphs over the Holly King and signifies the return of the light.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Machu Picchu is considered a magical place and the home of the Sun God Inti. During Incan times, the winter solstice was referred to as the Festival of the Sun or the Inti Raymi. The Inti Raymi is celebrated in June instead of December. Originally, the Inca festival involved sacrificing animals and, in some cases, children.
Saturnalia was a Roman festival held between the 17th and 23rd of December during the winter solstice. The festival was dedicated to the Roman agricultural god, Saturn. People exchanged gifts and engaged in merrymaking and role reversals during this time.
Significance of Spring Equinox
Among the native pre-Christian Germanic tribes, members of the tribes believed in a patron deity of the spring season named Ostara. The name originated from a spring goddess named Eostre. They held a feast day on every full moon after the vernal equinox.
Mayans of Central America
For centuries, Mayans observed the spring equinox. The Mayans gathered at Chichen Itza to witness the “Serpent” shadow at the pyramid. The shadow signified the return of Kukulcan the Sky Serpent.
On the full moon after the Vernal Equinox, the Ancient Saxons celebrated Eostre, their version of the fertility goddess. The Ancient Saxons associated Eostre with adorned eggs and hares as emblems. The fertility symbolism of Easter eggs and the hare or rabbit has survived ancient influences from the worship of the goddess Ostara or Eostre. Most humans connect to their past using the symbols of rebirth, spring and fertility.
The summer solstice represents the beginning of summer and the year’s longest day. The first full moon sighted during this period, according to tradition, is known as the Honey Moon. Ancient Pagans believed that the period was the best time to harvest honey and get married. This was because they associated the period with fertility gods and goddesses. The people harvested St. Johns Wort and used some of it in potions, while some were woven for decoration purposes.
In Portugal and Russia, people took ceremonial mass baths before dawn. The baths symbolized their connection to humanity. They believed it was a way of ensuring their health and strength. For Russians, this ceremonial bath is known as Kupala.
Japanese people mark the fall and spring equinox over seven days in Japan. The period known as Higan is a time for remembering their ancestors. They visit their graves, offer food and flowers, clean their tombstones and pray.
In Poland, the fall equinox calls for people to take food and bouquets for blessings by a priest. The Polish then keep them until the following year’s harvest. Alternatively, they use them as medicine. The festival is known as the Feast of Greenery.
In England, the British harvested the last corn sheaf and turned it into a doll. The doll symbolized the spirit of the field for English citizens. They then soaked corn dolls in water to depict rain or burn to represent the grain spirit’s death.
The fairs brought together farmers and merchants. A giant glove was frequently stretched over the fair, symbolizing the promise of openhandedness and charity. Additionally, large wicker figurines were also built and burned in mock sacrifice to depict a vegetative spirit.