Twice a year day and night fall into balance, lasting for nearly equal lengths. Known as equinoxes, Latin for “equal night,” they occur in March and September and along with solstices, mark the changing of seasons as Earth travels around the sun.
Astronomers like to describe the equinox within the conceptual celestial sphere. Here the heavens are projected around the Earth, like an enormous planetarium. The model is bisected by the celestial equator, a projection of Earth’s own equator. The Equinox occurs at the point at which the Sun’s path, or ecliptic (EE-Klip-Tick) crosses the celestial equator. In spring it is known as the vernal equinox and in fall, the autumnal equinox. The other ends of the sun’s path are the two solstices. In the northern hemisphere the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year, while the winter solstice marks the shortest.
The seasonal aligning of the sun has been more than just a unique celestial event for humankind throughout history. Ancient sites like Stonehenge, in England and Machu Picchu in Peru have well documented solar alignments during the solstices. Similarly, the equinoxes have been associated with some amazing manmade phenomena. In the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itza (Chee-Chen EEt-Zah), the great pyramid known as El Castillo is oriented along cardinal axes. During the equinoxes, shadows cast by the railings create the illusion of a writhing serpent body descending the northern steps where it joins the carved serpent’s head at the base of the stairway.
The cultural significance of the fall equinox and changing of season continues today. Especially in the northern hemisphere, where the autumnal equinox occurs around harvest season. In fact, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is commonly referred to as the “harvest moon.” In China and other Asian countries, this time is celebrated with the mid-autumnal festival. The origins are linked to the birth of the moon goddess, and festival traditions revolve around families, with reunions and feasts, and special moon cakes. In Jewish culture, thanks for the harvest is given during the week-long “Feast of the Tabernacles,” or Succoth. Families eat meals in temporary shelters outside, recalling the Israelites days in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt.