Spring is in the air! What does that mean to you? Fresh air, sunshine, pastels, or bunnies perhaps? We celebrate this season for a good reason. Spring is a time of regeneration and rebirth. It is marked by the Vernal Equinox, which this year falls on March 20. It is an interesting scientific phenomenon with historical and symbolic significance spanning multiple cultures.
This year’s Vernal Equinox falls on the heels of a snowstorm in the Northeast, making it almost laughable to mark the day as spring’s first, which it is, astronomically-speaking. Astronomers use equinoxes and solstices to mark seasonal shifts. These dates can change from year to year, which is why you may remember last year’s spring began on March 19. Of course, you can also determine the beginning of spring using meteorological seasons, a system used by professional meteorologists. Based on the season’s average temperature, each season spans a period of 90 to 92 days, and its calendar months are determined by location in the world. According to this system our spring already began on March 1 and will last until May 31. Either method is technically correct, but the equinox’s celestial description certainly allows for a more ceremonial ushering in of springtime.
The equinoxes (spring and fall) mark the days when the sun shines directly on the equator. The sun will rise and set exactly due east and west, respectively. The 2017 Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere will occur at 3:29 AM PST and 6:29 AM EDT (find out your city’s exact time here) on Monday, March 20. The Southern Hemisphere will be experiencing the Autumnal Equinox at the same time. The time indicates the moment the sun will cross the celestial equator, or the line in the sky above the Earth’s equator.
Many people believe that during the equinox, day and night command the sky for equal time frames, which isn’t accurate. The sun’s rays are bent by our atmosphere so the morning light will brighten the sky even before the sun rises, and vice versa during sunset. Therefore, depending on the location, the equinox will have a nearly equal day and night, but not exactly split.
Unfortunately if you were looking forward to an exact 12-hour day, you just missed it. The Spring Equilux occurs a few days before the Vernal Equinox. The Equilux is the day of equal daylight and night. This year the Spring Equilux occurred on March 14.
History & Cultural Significance
Throughout history and across many cultures spring has remained a time for renewal, fertility, and hope. In spring Christians celebrate Easter to honor the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Jews celebrate Passover in honor of the Israelites being freed from the shackles of Egyptian slavery. These holidays are celebrated in conjunction with the spring season, though they are not necessarily driven by the Vernal Equinox. For that we look to older cultures.
The early Pagans marked the Vernal Equinox, or Ostara, as a celebration for the new crop season. The name originated from Eostre, the Germanic goddess of spring. Notice how the name Eostre resembles the word “Easter.”
The Persian New Year, Nowruz , meaning “new day”, always starts at the first dawning of the equinox and is thought to date back 15,000 years. It was famously celebrated in 487 BCE by the Persian king Darius the Great of the Achaemenian dynasty, in honor of his newly built Persepolis. On that day the first rays of the sun fell on the observatory at 6:30 AM, an event which only happened once every 1400 years. The Nowruz festival is a celebration of renewal and hope and is now celebrated by many different ethnic groups in different countries. Today in preparation for Nowruz, Iranians do a major house-cleaning before the 13-day festival. Wonder if that’s where the concept of spring cleaning comes from?
The Mayans of Central America also recognized the importance of the Vernal Equinox. At sunset on the day of the equinox they would gather at El Castillo, the ceremonial pyramid built in Mexico in 600 AD, to watch The Return of the Sun Serpent. The play of shadow and light on the north face of the pyramid, as the sun is setting, creates the illusion of a giant serpent descending the pyramid from the sky to the earth.
El Castillo isn’t the only ancient site built for equinox splendor. The Mnajdra temple complex on the southern end of Malta was built around 3600 BC. Only on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes does a beam of light enter the main passageway into a small shrine inside. The entrance gate of Angkor Wat in Cambodia faces the rising spring equinox sun perfectly, as does the Great Sphinx of Giza in Egypt. Stonehenge, in the south of England, is a prehistoric ring of massive standing stones, whose alignment with the sun has made it a destination for anyone who wants to celebrate the equinox and other celestial events.
There are many ways to enjoy the Vernal Equinox and welcome spring, including visiting one of the ancient sites. You can spend time planting a garden, spring-cleaning or even on spiritual renewal. With the common themes of renewal, hope and purity, marking the beginning of spring has a long and meaningful history for most people and cultures everywhere.