Equinoxes occur twice a year, once in the spring (the vernal equinox) and once in the fall (the autumnal equinox). On the equinox, the number of hours of day and night are equal over the entire Earth. So, on the equinox northerly Barrow, Alaska (71°N), equatorial Bogota, Colombia (4°N), and Dunedin, New Zealand (45°S) all receive about 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. If we flash back to the most recent solstice (December 21, 2014), we can see how different these times were. On the last winter solstice, Barrow received zero hours (or seconds!) of daylight. Poor Barrow. Bogota received 11 hours and 51 minutes of daylight (daylength varies little throughout the year near the equator). And Dunedin received a pleasant 15 hours and 44 minutes of daylight – the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice being the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So, while there was a great deal of variation between these locales on the solstice (nearly 16 hours from north to south), they all receive about the same amount of daylight on the equinox.
The vernal equinox is considered the first day of spring. While first signs of spring may vary based on your locale, this designation makes sense astronomically. The Earth doesn’t orbit the sun in a straight up and down alignment; it is tilted on its axis – this is why we have seasons. From a northern hemisphere perspective, during our winter the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. During our summer, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun. On the equinox, the celestial equator (the Earth’s equator projected out in space) passes through the center of sun. Which means, that neither the South nor North Pole are tilted away from the sun, so all parts of the Earth receive the same amount of sunlight. So, the moment before the equinox, the northern hemisphere is still (just barely) tilted away from the sun. The moment after the equinox, the northern hemisphere is now (just barely) tilted toward the sun. Thus, astronomically, the seasons have changed. The equinox marks the beginning of spring and spring will continue until the summer solstice (June 20-21). On the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is tilted the most toward the sun it will get, so we receive the most amount of sunlight on that day. After the summer solstice, the northern hemisphere is starting to tilt away from the sun little by little until we reach the next equinox, and then the winter solstice, when we will start to tilt back toward the sun again.
If you are having trouble wrapping your mind around this, I found this video extremely helpful. I posted it here before. It really makes the whole concept much clearer to me.
As with the solstices, cultures throughout the world have celebrated the equinoxes for millennia. The Mayans built El Castillo at Chichen Itza around 900 A.D., where on the equinoxes, observers can see a huge shadow depicting the body of a wriggling serpent rise up along the stone wall.
A simple equinox celebration:
In much of the world, the new year is celebrated close to the winter solstice. This new beginning is often celebrated by making resolutions. People are filled with intentions of turning over a new leaf and beginning again. To me, this seems out-of-sync with the world around us, however. While sun is gradually returning to the land, we don’t see fresh starts or literal ‘new leaves’ around us (especially in places with cold winters). At the vernal equinox, however, the world is full of new beginnings. The snow is melting, buds may be forming, daffodils and tulips popping up through warming soil, and if not yet – they will be soon. I think this is a more appropriate time to think about starting fresh and new, leaving behind the old and opening yourself to the new.
Consider what has been holding you back or what has been keeping you down. What narrative have you carried with you through the winter that you are ready to let go of? Write it down on a piece of paper and take it outside to burn (safely) on your patio, in your firepit. Let it go; you don’t need to carry it with you any longer. Make room for fresh, new growth.