Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Spring Equinox

forsythiaToday is the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. It's also the equinox in the southern hemisphere, but it's the autumn one there. The equinoxes are the two points in the year that are halfway between midwinter and midsummer; halfway between the shortest day and the longest day. So today, day and night are exactly the same length, as long as you define "day" as "the time when the midpoint of the sun is above the horizon" and "night" as "the time when the midpoint of the sun is below the horizon". Most of us think of the day as beginning when any part of the sun is above the horizon and ending when every part of the sun dips below it, so in practice the day is slightly longer then the night on the equinox.

I imagine that ancient people, noticing that the midday sun was getting lower and lower in the sky as winter progressed, may have been afraid that this year it might carry on getting lower and eventually disappear altogether. Maybe they were very relieved after midwinter passed and they noticed the days lengthening again. Perhaps it seemed to them like a battle between light and darkness, between day and night, warmth and cold, life and death. At midwinter it must have seemed as if the darkness was winning the battle, but then the light began to fight back. By the equinox, the light was winning the battle - day is longer than night once again and all of nature is coming back to life. Plants are starting to grow again, animals are active and breeding. Hurrah for the force of light and life and everything that is good for we humans.

So it's no surprise that the date of midwinter is close to the feast of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the son (sun). He is small and weak at that point, but he is growing and he brings hope for the future. Other cultures past and present have important celebrations at that time of year which include ideas about light and life and warmth. Similarly, the date of Easter is defined in relation to the equinox. And other cultures have celebrations at this time which are all about rebirth, renewal, and the triumph of life over death. It's all the same celebration. It's all the same idea. It's built into us because we are alive and we live on a planet which has seasons. Maybe you're not religious yourself and don't celebrate Easter. Maybe you didn't know that today is the equinox before you read this post. But you knew the flowers are all coming out, didn't you? You noticed that the mornings aren't so dark, and the evenings are getting longer. It's good to be in tune with the changes of the year. Happy equinox.

17 comments:

Joyce said...

Three cheers for longer days! Wish my forsythia was blooming like the one in the picture. We probably have a couple of weeks to wait for that.
Easter moves around all over the place, since it is really tied to the Jewish lunar calendar and their Passover. I drives me a little crazy as a church musician-some years, like this one, we've just gotten through Christmas when we have to hit the decks running to get Easter music ready. Other years it is in late April. So, it's not really tied to the equinox :)

Melanie Rimmer said...

It really is connected to the equinox, but it doesn't usually happen this close to it. It's explained here.

"The canonical rule is that Easter day is the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month (the nominal full moon) that falls on or after 21 March (nominally the day of the vernal equinox)."

Anonymous said...

Isn't the Jewish Passover still in line with Easter? I always thought that the Christian Easter *and* Passover had the same calculation.

After all, Maundy Thursday (today) was celebrated by Jesus and the Apostles with respect to Passover.

I always wondered if they were still around the same date as eachother, because I get a little ticked off whenever people state that the date of Easter was stolen from the Pagans by the Christians.

Is in not the case that the same calculation for Passover predates Christianity, so 'we' didn't really pinch the Pagan festival?

Sorry, this is a bit of a bugbear, since you hear every Christmas how the Church deliberately sabotaged the winter solstice in order to undermine Pagan festivals, and overshadow them with its own.

I really never believed it was quite that simple!

Lindsey

Nancy J. Bond said...

Happy Spring Equinox to you, as well. Your forsythia is beautiful!

Joyce said...

You're right. I checked Wikipedia and also talked to my son (whose a pastor) and it does seem that everyone and their uncle has had something to do with setting that date. Matt did say that there was an effort on the part of the church to keep Easter as close to Passover as possible, in keeping with the Biblical account.
Anyway, longer days are all to the good!

Anonymous said...

I though one difference was that some Christian leaders back through the ages had mandated Easter was on Sunday - it hadn't originally been.

Neil.

Anonymous said...

Or did someone just misunderstand the difference between Jewish and Christian calendar and I have believed them :)

zzrmags said...

*sigh* I wish it were Spring here. We are just coming into Autumn, and altho I can't wait for the rains and am loving the relife from our heatwave, I do miss the 'feel' of Spring. Mind you one blessing we have in Autumn is that the days turn balmy and it's the perfect time to plant trees, shrubs and our winter veggies.

Skipweasel said...

I can't help thinking that ancient people would have known that since the sun got lower and lower last year but still came back it'd probably do the same this year!

Melanie Rimmer said...

Skipweasel - there must have been somebody who noticed it first, though.

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