Autumnal Equinox Traditions
Today is the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, the point after which the nights become longer than the days, as the North Pole tilts away from the sun. We commonly know it as the first day of fall, although we’ve said goodbye to summer already in the rites of Labor Day and the beginning of the school year. We’ve told you about the traditions and celebrations surrounding the vernal equinox in the spring, and yes, there are traditions for its opposite— although not as many. While the beginning of spring is a joyous occasion, the waning of warm weather is a bit melancholy.
In pagan mythology, the equinox is called Mabon, or Second Harvest. It is a time to give thanks for the summer and to pay tribute to the coming darkness. It is also a time of preparing for Samhain (October 31–November 1), the bigger pagan festival that begins winter. Some Wiccan rituals for Mabon include building an altar with harvest fruits and vegetables, meditating on balance, gathering and feasting on apples, offering apples to the goddess, sharing food, and counting one’s blessings.
Japan marks the equinoxes—both of them—with a period called Ohigan (sometimes spelled O-higan). The Japanese Buddhist belief is that the land of the afterlife is due west, and during the equinoxes, the sun sets directly west. The equinoxes are also symbolic of the transitions of life. The week around each equinox is Ohigan, a time to visit the graves of one's ancestors, to spruce up the grave sites, and to leave flowers. It is also a time of meditation and to visit living relatives.
China and Vietnam celebrate the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, which is on the full moon nearest to the equinox. On a lunar calendar, that is the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. It is celebrated with the usual festival activities, plus gazing at the moon and eating moon cakes. In the southern U.S., Moon Pies are often used in place of moon cakes. A similar holiday in Korea is called Chuseok.
Michaelmas is the Catholic feast of the Archangel Michael. Some traditions use this feast day to celebrate other archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael as the Feast of the Angels. The feast day is September 29, which is celebrated as the beginning of fall in some places. It is thought that the feast was set near the autumn equinox to draw the faithful away from pagan celebrations, as are several other Christian holidays. Traditions include gathering and eating nuts (which began on Holy Rood Day on September 14), and eating a fattened goose, if you could afford that luxury. In centuries past in England, it was a time of transitions, as servants were paid their wages after the harvest, and workers scrambled to find new employment contracts. The employment fairs that facilitated this custom became an opportunity for community celebration. It is also a good time to eat blackberries, as “Old Michaelmas Day" (October 10th) is traditionally the cutoff time for picking blackberries.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year holiday, is 163 days after the first day of Passover. The date of Passover is set to begin the night of the full moon after the vernal equinox, so Rosh Hashanah has only a tangental relationship with the equinox.
Neo-Druids gather at Stonehenge to watch the equinox sunrise. This happens every year, both in spring and fall. As with other pagan groups, the equinox is a time for Druids to offer thanks for a bountiful harvest and prepare for the darkness of winter.
In the West, celebrations surrounding the fall equinox are less about the equinox itself and more about the activities of fall. We have county fairs and festivals, which are scheduled around school calendars and to maximize tourism. We celebrate Halloween all out of proportion to its historic roots, because it’s fun. We decorate with fall colors and harvest fruits for months at a time, and we split our holidays, celebrating the end of summer with Labor Day and giving thanks for a bountiful harvest on Thanksgiving. Together, those are all celebrations of fall.
In the Southern Hemisphere, today is the first day of spring, which is a whole other holiday.
See also: How Did the Seasons Get Their Names?