Autumn has always been my favourite time of year. The trees begin to shed their jewelled leaves and the Sun starts to descend on its annual path, casting deep, golden shafts of light across fields and homesteads in the late afternoons. According to the shops, it’s already almost Christmas, but stop! I don’t want to fast-forward to the end of December, I want to savour this wonderful, transitional time of year. And what better way to do it than by marking the September equinox?
Many cultures through the ages have done so via festivals and other celebrations, and I’ve picked a few of my favourites to demonstrate the similarities and the differences in how we salute this pivotal point in our orbit around the Sun.
What exactly IS the September equinox?
The September equinox is one of those ‘celestial mechanics’ things that’s easy to define, but not so easy to visualise! It happens when the Sun’s position in the sky moves south across the plane of the Earth’s orbit. It marks one of two points of almost equal day and night, the other being the March (or spring/vernal) equinox. The image above shows an analemma, which is the pattern the sun makes if you mark its position in the sky on successive days for a year.
We all know that ‘down under’ in Australasia, South America and southern Africa, September marks the onset of spring. But over two thirds of the planet’s land mass lies above the equator, so most articles featuring the September equinox tend to be about the approach of autumn in the northern hemisphere. That’s what I’m concentrating on here – so let’s go celebrate!
Equinox celebrations in the UK & North America
Harvest Festival, UK
I vividly remember ‘Harvest Festival’ time as a child because it was quite a big thing at school. It was the first major event of the school year, during the week leading to the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon (the full moon occurring closest to the September equinox). Not only did we bring tins of food for distribution to the less fortunate, but I recall belting out the classic thanksgiving hymn We Plough the Fields and Scatter, with gusto. The original concept goes back a long way to early pagan rituals but today’s versions have been imbued with Christian principles. But if your school days are long gone and you’d prefer a more secular celebration, a hearty meal with loved ones or a spiced pumpkin latte with a friend will ease you from summer into autumn just as well!
Guldize, Cornwall (UK)
Cornwall’s take on the event is known as Guldize, from the old Cornish Gool dheys, ‘the feast of the ricks’ (or grain stacks). It retains many of the old folk traditions, such as the Crying of the Neck declaration, where the last bundle of grain (the neck) is held aloft and claimed with gratitude. Traditions range from culinary delights such as Guldize (steamed) pudding, to dancing the ‘Cock in Britches’….a routine which mimics the process of sowing and harvesting grain!
Thanksgiving, North America
Celebrated predominantly in the USA and Canada, the Thanksgiving holiday originates from old English traditions going back to the 16th-century, and the reign of Henry VIII. During the Reformation, the Puritans campaigned to eliminate traditional Church holidays, such as Christmas and Easter and replace them with (to them) more meaningful holidays, known as Days of Thanksgiving. These holidays marked God’s special gifts of providence and included a celebration of the autumn harvest. In this sense, Thanksgiving has an equal base in christianity and pagan principles. Thanksgiving occurs on the second Monday of October in Canada and the fourth Thursday of November in the USA. While Thanksgiving occurs well after the actual equinox, the celebrations focus on similar themes, i.e. a time for families to gather and enjoy the plentiful supplies of a good harvest.
Alban Elfed, Druidry
With paganism becoming increasingly popular in western societies, the tides are turning against some of those imposed Christian values, as archaic customs are revived and get a modern tweak. In Druidry, the autumn equinox ritual is known as Alban Elfed, meaning ‘the light of the water’. The equinox is seen as the ‘gateway’ of the year, and there is some beautiful prose to be found among Druid writings, referring to the balance between light and dark and the cycle of the seasons. Celebrations range from family feasts to personal affirmations and decorating a corner of your home with autumnal colours and a bowl of water (the element of the season).
For most pagans, Mabon is the second of the three harvest ceremonies, between Lammas and Samhain. It’s similar to Alban Elfed although it’s a more recent addition to the neopagan calendar. Ceremonies always involve giving thanks to the Mother Goddess for the abundance of fruit and vegetables and marking the balance of day and night. If you don’t follow a specific spiritual path but would still like to mark the equinox in pagan style, you could go foraging for berries, sloes and wild damsons – or plant a seed! Or try meditating to restore balance in your life. The beauty of pagan customs is that you can be very interpretive – it’s the intention that’s important.
The September equinox in Continental Europe
Continental Europe has a similar mix of influences in its equinox and harvest events, taking centuries’ old practices and celebrations, and adding a modern twist.
In Poland and other Slavic nations, the Dożynki festival, originally held on the equinox, is initiated by a procession of townsfolk carrying a large decorated wreath or garland, representing the harvested crops. The solemnity is followed, as you’d expect, with lots of music, dancing, feasting and other revelry. In addition to natural deities such as woodland and water spirits, Slavic pagans had ‘star gods’, including the male Mesyats (Moon God) and Solntse (Sun Goddess), which is intriguing as it’s a reversal of the usual genders.
Latvia’s Miᶄeᶅdiena (autumn thanksgiving) fair is named after a Christian archangel, Michael, but dig back further and you’ll uncover folk tales of the fertility god Jumis, and how villagers would honour him with bunches of grain, to appease him and ensure his return (and a good crop) the following year. Traditional dainas (traditional Latvian music or poetry) are still performed at these autumn fairs, and for younger revellers there are creative workshops for learning more about the old customs. For everyone, it’s a time to feast on local delicacies and an opportunity to buy autumn products made by local craftsmen.
Szüreti , Hungary
All this talk of bountiful crops could make you thirsty, but I have just the place for you. The Hungarian Szüreti celebrations focus on the harvest of one particular fruit – grapes. And how do they celebrate? By drinking lots of wine – how else?! After all, the traditional lamb stew (or a spit-roasted pork for the larger celebrations) must be washed down somehow. In some regions of the country, it’s still popular for locals to dress in typical Hungarian costumes of billowing white base garments overlaid with brightly-coloured embroidered aprons and waistcoats. Many townsfolk and villagers also go out on parade in traditional horse and cart. I’m tempted to head over there one autumn for some wine-tasting, feasting and general Magyar merriment.
Equinox festivals in the rest of the world
Not all festivals around this time of year specifically refer to the September equinox, but there’s no doubt that they partly owe their existence to the changing seasons, which in turn are determined by the transition marked by the Sun’s path in the sky. But many older cultures have relied just as much (if not more) on the Moon for marking the passage of time – so it makes for a fascinating hodge-podge of dates. It all makes a little more sense, when you realise that not all autumn festivals are planned according to our modern calendar.
Lunisolar and lunar calendars
The calendar we use in the western world today, the Julian calendar, is based on our orbit around the Sun. In many ‘old world’ cultures, calendars weren’t just based around the solar cycle, but also took into account the phases of the Moon. Today, these lunisolar calendars are still used to determine the dates of religious festivals and other traditional events. Because these two cycles don’t match, the calendars go ‘out of sync’ over time, so extra periods are added at certain intervals, to bring the dates back in line again – much as we do with leap years in our calendar. Only it’s more complex, since there are two celestial cycles to consider. Each culture has their own method for calculating this intercalary period.
Lunisolar calendars are often based on agricultural cycles where the year ‘begins’ in the springtime – usually March in the northern hemisphere. So don’t be surprised to hear about an autumn festival taking place in the 7th month, for example…it doesn’t mean July! The Hijri calendar, which determines the dates of Islamic rituals such as the month of Ramadan, is purely lunar. Since the lunar year is 11 days shorter than the solar year, each Islamic month ‘cycles’ through the seasons, taking 33 years to realign. Does it all seem rather complicated? You’re right, it is!
Fun fact: Although our western calendar is based on the solar cycle, a lunisolar calendar is used to determine the dates of Easter each year. That’s why it seems to hop about like the Easter bunny!
Sukkot (Jewish Feast of Ingathering or Tabernacles)
According to the Hebrew lunisolar calendar (see below), this week-long Jewish festival takes place on the 15th day of the 7th month and falls close to the Harvest Moon. Its purpose is two-fold, marking not only the harvest but observing aspects of the Jewish faith.
Sukkot (often known as ‘tabernacles’) are temporary dwellings in which farmers would live during harvesting. Families build their own sukkah (singular form), which typically consist of 3 walls with a roof of natural vegetation. All family meals are eaten in the sukkot during the festival. Every day, the Taking of the Four Kinds is performed, where a bundle of four different crop types is waved around as special blessings, or hoshanot, are recited.
Fun fact: Sukkot is a more solemn affair than some autumn festivals, but recent generations are finding increasingly fun ways to celebrate. There are even T-shirts available today with the logo ‘You’re using what in your sukkah?!’ or ‘Just Jew it!’!
Sharada Navaratri Hindu Festival, India
The 9-night Sharada (autumnal) Navaratri falls between late September and early October, although the exact date varies as Hinduism also uses a lunisolar calendar.
Held in honour of the divine feminine Devi (aka Durga), Navaratri celebrates the triumph of good conquering evil and the restoration of dharma, a concept akin to ‘cosmic law and order’. It’s also a way to give thanks for a good harvest. Each day, one of Devi’s nine forms is honoured.
In Gujarat, the famous Garba dances are performed, with everyone spinning around as they hold their decorated dancing sticks (dandiya). Other regional celebrations include; chanting of Hindu scriptures, fasting and/or feasting, burning or drowning of evil effigies, lighting lanterns and gathering symbolic grains. It’s an auspicious time for Hindus and an opportunity to wear their most colourful clothes and best jewellery.
Fun fact: The 4th incarnation of Devi, Kushmanda, represents the cosmic egg and is considered the creator of the universe.
Moon Festival, China and Vietnam
Since the days of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC) the people of China have celebrated Chang’e, the Chinese Moon Goddess, and the time of the Harvest Moon.
Thanks to the wide-reaching cultural influence of China, the Moon Festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, is now one of the most important outdoor festivals not just in China, but other parts of eastern Asia, particularly Vietnam. It takes place on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese lunisolar calendar and celebrations consist of family reunions, observing/revering the Moon and playing word-riddle games on paper lanterns. Mooncakes are baked and feasted on by the gazillion. They are, unsurprisingly, circular (symbolising unity) and are usually sweet, but do vary across the regions.
In both North and South Korea, the 3-day Chuseok is observed at the same time, but the celebrations are tempered by honouring the departed with ancestral memorials.
Fun fact: There’s an old fable among the Zhuang people of China which tells of the stars being the children of the Sun and Moon. When the Moon becomes pregnant she grows to full term (full Moon) before giving birth and waning back into her crescent form.
Higan, meaning ‘the other shore, where the departed are’, is a traditional Japanese rite (and public holiday) which takes place at both equinoxes. It’s a Buddhist custom dating from the time of Emperor Shōmu in the 8th century. Rituals often take place in Buddhist temples or involve visiting the grave of a deceased relative and honouring their memory with decorations, incense and food. Around the September equinox, the red spider lily flower begins to bloom, so it features heavily in the decorations. Round or sphere-shaped food, such as sweet rice cakes and dumplings, is favoured, as it denotes the natural cycle of life and death.
While the modern focus is to honour the dead, many Japanese accept that the origins may go back to ancient agricultural observations of the changing seasons.
Snake of Sunlight at Chichen Itza, Mexico
Many civilizations across the ages have been known to possess great astronomical knowledge. Some even built vast temples or stone observatories to mark important points in the celestial calendar. The Mayans were no exception. At the temple of Kukulkan in the ancient city of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, crowds still flock to observe the equinoxes during a phenomenon known as the Snake of Sunlight.
As the equinox nears, the Sun’s rays approach a series of triangles carved into the side of Kukulkan’s main stairway, gradually illuminating them from the top down. At the base of the stairway, a giant carving of a snake’s head awaits to complete the effect of a snake slithering down the stairs.
Even after hundreds of years, the alignment is still there. The scale of the universe is such that changes in angles, distance or motion can take a very long time to become apparent, but eventually, if the structure is still standing by then, the snake will wither away and disappear. Most of the focus for these autumnal ceremonies is on the Moon, whereas the actual September equinox is a solar event. But that’s just the science. What’s just as important is that we appreciate the benefits of the unique celestial motions in our Solar System that give us the seasons, the elements and the climate we need to grow food and sustain ourselves here on Earth.
If we did that a little more often, maybe we’d learn to preserve it better.