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The Autumnal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere

By Jake Bottero
The Seasons
The Seasons

Seasons are a result of the earth's movement relative to the sun. Earth in June is very different from the Earth at the end of the year. The Northern and Southern hemispheres have opposite seasons. At the end of the year, in the Northern Hemisphere, it is snowing and very cold. In contrast, the Southern hemisphere has a warm summer season at this time. This is a result of sunlight striking the Earth at different angles because of the tilted angle of Earth's rotation.

The Vernal Equinox and Autumnal Equinox are classical names from Latin. These are the historically universal and still most widely used terms for the equinoxes, but are potentially confusing because in the Southern Hemisphere the vernal equinox does not occur in spring and the autumnal equinox does not occur in autumn. The equivalent common language English terms spring equinox and autumn (or fall) equinox are even more ambiguous. It has become increasingly common for people to mistakenly refer to the September equinox in the southern hemisphere as the Vernal equinox.

So if you are in the Norethern Hemisphere, pick out a pumpkin and sip some warm cider, because fall is officially here! On Saturday, September 22, the Autumnal Equinox occurs. Only twice per year does the Earth’s axis tilt neither toward nor away from the sun, creating equal day and night hours.

Thousands of years ago, Julius Caesar created the Julian Calendar, with a drifting equinox. This moving calendar spurred Pope Gregory XIII to create the modern Gregorian Calendar in 1582.

Mabon Altar
Mabon Altar

Relish the crisp, autumn air and the warm spices of the season, as Pagans celebrate Mabon and people around the Northern Hemisphere mark the autumnal equinox. For Pagans and Wiccans, Mabon is a type of Thanksgiving, recognizing the gifts of harvest; it is a time to seek blessings for the approaching winter months. Equinox, a celestial event, occurs twice per year and is so named because the length of day and night are (almost exactly) equal. The equinox phenomenon can occur on any planet with a significant tilt to its rotational axis, such as Saturn.

The effect of seasonal changes on humans and animals is well documented, but the celebrations that humans host on this occasion are just as well known! Religiously, the Autumnal Equinox means Mabon for Wiccans and some Pagans, an approaching festival of love for Zoroastrians, and a sacred day to visit family and loved ones’ graves for Shintos. Internationally, the Autumnal Equinox signals a major harvest festival in Korea and a national holiday in Japan. Historically, the Autumnal Equinox has also been held in high esteem by many cultures. The Mayans, in particular, were fascinated by the equinoxes, and they even designed a pyramid - El Castillo at Chichen Itza - to host specific patterns that appeared on these special days. Twice per year, the image of the Mayan serpent god, Kulkukan, can be seen as a lightened outline amid the shadows on the pyramid.

Today, Mabon is a tradition much like Thanksgiving and continues to play a major part in Wiccan  festivities. It’s a time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the rewards of hard work—whether those rewards include a bountiful harvest, a happy family or a well-balanced work life. Fall foods like cider, corn, gourds and wine are popular at feasts, and many celebrate elaborately. It’s also common to unwind and prepare for the end of the year, which is coming soon at Samhain.

“Everything autumn” sums up the fare, symbols and activities of Mabon, as Pagans offer cider, wines and warming herbs and spices to gods and goddesses. Druids call this time Mea’n Fo’mhair, honoring the God of the Forest. Wiccans celebrate the Second Harvest Festival with altars, decorating them with pine cones, gourds, corn, apples and other autumn elements.

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