Fall is definitely my favorite time of year. When the summer heat breaks and the air becomes crisp, there’s a sense of starting fresh, reflecting on the past season, and looking forward to the future. I can understand why so many cultures celebrate the autumn equinox, which marks the first day of fall, every September. Whether it’s called Mabon or the Autumn Moon Festival, the start of this new season is certainly an auspicious occasion.
Autumn in Balance
The word “equinox” comes from the Latin æquinoctuium, which itself came from æquus (“equal”) and nox (“night”): “equal night.” It refers to the twenty-four-hour period—which occurs twice a year, in spring and fall—in which there are twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of night, according to ReligiousTolerance.org. However, the experts at TimeandDate.com reveal this idea of the day and night being perfectly in balance during the equinox as a myth: during the autumn equinox, they write, the lengths of night and day are nearly, but not entirely, equal, because the sun takes longer to rise and set in places farther away from the equator.
The equinox really refers to the time, twice each year, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and moves southward in the northern hemisphere. The earth’s axis of rotation is then perpendicular to the line connecting the centers of the earth and the sun. The 2010 fall equinox will occur at exactly 7:09 p.m. (PST) and 10:09 p.m. (EST) on September 22.
A Bewitching Celebration
Perhaps the best-known tradition surrounding the fall equinox in the United States is that of the neopagans, mostly Wiccans. Wicca is loosely based on ancient Celtic beliefs, symbols, and practices, with the addition of more recent Masonic and ceremonial magic, according to ReligiousTolerance.org. Wiccans view time as circular—as opposed to the linear time of monotheistic religions—and the equinoxes are part of the solar (yearly) cycle.
The autumn equinox, usually called Mabon (after the Welsh god of the harvest), is the second and main Wiccan harvest festival. Wiccans may celebrate Mabon the evening before, at sunrise on the day of, or at the exact time of the equinox. As witch and Wicca expert Dianne Schure explains, “Modern pagans (and I’m using that term as a catchall) are a group with sufficiently varied traditions. Not all of them would celebrate in the same way.”
Corn Dollies and Burning Men
Burning Man, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert (also known as the Playa), is a large annual event that stems from the neopagan equinox tradition (though most “Burners” wouldn’t consider themselves witches). Burning Man’s website warns, “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” But Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, a well-respected member of the Wiccan community, according to Schure, writes in Creating Circles & Ceremonies that Burning Man has its roots in the European custom of the corn dolly, a man-shaped doll fashioned from the last sheaf of harvested grain. Traditionally, the spirit of the grains resided in the doll, which members of the community dressed up in nice clothes and addressed by name. They then burned the doll to release the spirit, amid much rejoicing. Sometimes the spirit of the grain was released by burning a large wickerwork effigy, much like the eponymous Burning Man sculpture that’s the focal point of the Burning Man festival each year.
A Time to Reflect
For Japanese Buddhists, the spring and fall equinoxes are both six-day celebrations (three days before and three days after the equinox itself), called the Higan-e. Higan means “other shore” in Japanese, and the six days represent the six perfections—giving, observance of the precepts, perseverance, effort, meditation, and wisdom—needed to transition from samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth in the material world) to nirvana (a transcendent state of perfect happiness).
During the six days of each equinox, observers of the holiday repent for past sins and pray for enlightenment in the next life. They also take time to remember the dead and to pay visits to family graves. Since the equinoxes are supposedly the most temperate times of the year, Japanese Buddhists regard them as ideal moments to reflect on the meaning of life, according to ReligiousTolerance.org.
Outside the United States, the largest fall equinox celebration happens in China: the Autumn Moon Festival. Within the United States, Chinatowns—like the one in San Francisco, California—explode with celebrations during this ancient holiday to mark the beginning of autumn, the bounty of the summer harvest, and the full moon.
During the Moon Festival, the Chinese eat moon cakes, of which there are many variations. According to MoonFestival.org, the Guangzhou version, which is the type Westerners know, is a round or square cake, filled with sweet lotus paste and salted duck eggs, with a soft, golden-brown exterior. The cake is customarily cut into quarters, thus causing the yolk to resemble a full moon.
According to one of many legends, the moon cake was invented as a way to honor the moon goddess, Chang-Er (sometimes, Chang-E). Because the moon represents yin, the female principle in Chinese philosophy, women take center stage during the Moon Festival.
To Everything, There Is a Season
’Tis the season for autumnal equinox festivals around the world and across cultures. Even if you celebrate by catching summer’s last rays or digging your winter clothes out of storage, know that you’re part of an age-old international tradition of welcoming the first day of fall.