Vernal Equinox Traditions

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Each year, the vernal or spring equinox is a special day around the world. In the northern hemisphere, it falls on March 20 (or March 21 in some years). In the southern hemisphere it falls on September 22 (or September 23 in some years). The equinoxes represent those seasonal moments when the sun passes directly over the Equator. But whenever the vernal equinox falls, it attracts a range of cultural, religious and non religious traditions world-wide.

Most vernal equinox traditions are documented for the March vernal equinox. The reason is geographical. The largest land masses, greatest variation of cultures and most documented traditions come from the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere.

Many ancient peoples tracked equinoxes. They celebrated their traditional respect for equinoxes by tuning their architecture to lighting effects of the skies. The event of equinoxes was the opportunity to display astronomical knowledge and mathematical skills.

To experience and understand these ancient cultural traditions, some countries offer special tours at the vernal equinox. Malta is one example. Part of the tour includes a visit to the Neolithic Mnajdra temple complex of about 3,000B.C. The lower temple is astronomically aligned. The sun's rays flow directly through the temple entrance and vibrantly light up the altar at the March vernal equinox. (This also happens at the autumnal equinox).

Another example is Mexico where tours offer a glimpse of the advanced ancient Mayan culture. Each year up to 40,000 people from all over the world converge on the huge ancient Mayan temple ruin of Chichen-Itza in Mexico to watch the amazing natural light show of the vernal equinox. The afternoon shadow of the serpent god Kukulcan slowly snakes its way down the immense steps of the Kukulcan pyramid. This phenomena dates from about 1500 B.C.

Today, some ancient non-religious traditions are still practised. In both northern and southern hemispheres, the vernal equinox is celebrated by pagans as a time of renewal and growth. (This day started as a celebration held by the ancient Germans to honour their Spring lunar goddess Eostre. The name was later changed to Easter.) Pagans adopt certain rites as part of their celebration. Features of this tradition may include a green cloth, candle, soil, seed, flowers, paper and a pen on the altar. There's a dance around an imaginary circle clock-wise. Desires are recorded on the paper by each participant till finally the high priestess burns the paper at the altar. The ashes are then mixed with the soil.

A few religious groups recognise the March vernal equinox of the northern hemisphere as the beginning of the New Year. These include Zoroastrians who refer to the New Year as "Now Ruz" and the Baha'i who call it "Naw Ruz". Zoroastrians trace their belief to Persia (modern day Iran) in the 7thcentury B.C. Part of the Zoroastrian tradition is to jump over fires as this practice symbolically strengthens the power of the sun in the New Year. Family tables are set with seven objects. Gifts from parents to children wait to be opened after the initial ritual.
"There are sprouting seeds (to symbolize food), coins (for riches), sugar (for sweetness), vinegar (for preservation), apples (for happiness), flowers (to show the abundance of the earth) and spices (for the spice in our lives). There is a candle for each member of the family, a decorated egg symbolizing life and the world, and an orange floating in a bowl of water. Everyone hopes to see the orange tremble in the water just as the New Year comes in."
Extracts from the Holy Book are read while candy is enjoyed. Then people say "Sad sal beh as in salha", which means "May you live a thousand years." At this point, children open their gifts.

The Baha'i, who originated from Persia in the mid 1800's, use many Zoroastrian symbols to celebrate the vernal equinox. However, their celebration also marks the end of a nineteen day cleansing fast from sunrise to sunset.

And then there are those today in the 21st century who subconsciously celebrate the coming of Spring around the vernal equinox. Flower festivals and the opening of private gardens for tour groups are becoming a feature of this time. On the home front, there is often a sudden urge to spring clean the house, open windows and women especially may embark on a shopping spree for new clothes.

But the Balinese adopt an unusual celebration of the vernal equinox. While they may follow the Gregorian calendar in the commercial world, they adopt two different calendars for their cultural worlds. One relates to the vernal equinox. Evil spirits are exorcised symbolically with fire on the day of the vernal equinox. And the Balinese New Year called Nyepi Day or the Day of Silence opens the next day. There is no traffic and no electronic media on this day.

World-wide, the vernal equinox is like a seasonal terminal where lifestyles and attitudes change. Notably, recorded traditions seem to be in countries with distinct seasons. Where is Africa? Where are the Pacific islands?

Customs and Holidays around the March Equinox
Vernal Equinox Traditions
Chichen-Itza in Mexico
Malta temples tour at the vernal equinox
A pagan celebration of Spring
Zoroastrianism and the Ba'hai
Bali's Day of Silence

More about this author: Gemma Wiseman

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