Autumn equinox heralds beginning of fall

Break out all things pumpkin spice. It’s officially fall, ya’ll.

While it does not guarantee, as many would hope, a drastic dip in South Georgia’s temperatures, it does herald the arrival of an important celestial event — the autumnal equinox. It will arrive precisely at 4:02 p.m. (eastern) today, marking the beginning of the fall season in the northern hemisphere, while the southern half of the earth moves into spring.

Derived from the Latin word “aequus” which means “equal” and “nox,” or “night,” the word literally means “equal night.” While that is not entirely true, it is fairly accurate.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the fall equinox occurs when the sun crosses “celestial equator.” Jack Burnett, managing editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, said this has transfixed civilizations to for thousands of years.

“There are two solstices — the winter and summer — when the earth is either tilted 23.4 degrees in the northern hemisphere, where we are. For the summer, it is pointed toward the sun and for the winter, six months away from that are the equinoxes, which are points in between,” he said by phone from his base in New Hampshire.

“The fall or autumn equinox is that point half way between summer solstice and winter solstice.”

Burnett said during this time, if you imagine a line to the sun from the Earth, the sun would be perpendicular to the Earth’s axis.

“We think we’re pretty smart now with our flat screen TVs, computers and pick up trucks but people have known about these (celestial) things for thousands of years and had it all figured out. So they were actually pretty smart back then,” he said.

The equinox creates a condition where the amount of sunlight is nearly equal to that of darkness. However, atmospheric conditions such as the true position of the sun as well as the bending of light (refraction) prohibit the equinox from being entirely equal — day to night.

“The problem with the term, of course, is that is not actually ‘equal night.’ That actually happens differently for various places. For Brunswick for instance, it will be on the 27th, a few days later,” he said.

“One of the reasons is your latitude or how far you are from equator. For Brunswick, it is about 31 degrees north latitude. That tells us that it will be around Sept. 27 when you down there have equal day and night. It is actually called ‘equalux,’ which means equal light.”

Many cultures throughout history have found the fall equinox, much like the summer and winter solstices, to be a time of mystery and opportunity for reflection. There are many reasons for that as well. On this day each year, the sun rises precisely in the east and sets exactly due west. During this route, it also moves in a straight line across the sky. In the days that follow the equinox, of course, nights get longer, overtaking the daylight hours, as the world moves toward winter.

These precise and eloquent movements led ancient cultures to attribute special meaning to the equinox. The easiest reference to find comes from the Zodiac, which was first created by ancients in Mesopotamia and later expanded by the Greeks thousands of years ago. As the sun moves into the equinox, the Zodiac sign shifts from Virgo to Libra. Libra, like the equinox itself, is about balance. Represented by the scales, it is a sign that promotes steadiness and harmony.

In the Middle Ages, the time surrounding the fall harvest was a particularly important period, ensuring survival through the coming harsh winter. Celebrations in homes often took place after the gathering and storing of the food.

The equinox also coincides (or takes place near) a number of religious holidays and observances. Almost every culture has some type of occasion that correlates either directly or indirectly with the equinox. Japanese Buddhists mark both the spring and fall equinoxes with a period called Ohigan, where ancestors are honored. The Chinese and Vietnamese celebrate the Moon Festival, where special attention is given to the moon. For Hindus, it is the time of Navaratri, is a nine-day festival celebrated in autumn.

In the West, Catholics traditionally celebrate the Feast of St. Michael on Sept. 29. Judaism has Rosh Hashanah, marking the new year, which began Wednesday and ends with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, on Sept. 30.

For Burnett, the spiritual links to the equinox simply make sense.

“If you stop and think about it, every one today as well as everyone thousands of years ago lived life with the only thing constant being change. The equinox and the solstices are specific times of change which were always important to people,” he said.

“The autumnal equinox there is the dying back of things, which has always been important to people. There is also the harvest and the bounty which is to be celebrated. Then there is this idea of things being equal and balanced which is what happens on the equinox. It has been seen throughout human history in human culture. The Yin and Yang from the East, for instance, and this idea of balance has always been important.”

Aside from religious observances, there are some lighthearted folk tales that accompany the equinox. For one, there is the long-held belief that eggs will balance on their own on that date or that one will not cast a shadow at noon on an equinox.

“There are a lot of things that people have used the equinox for ... people know, and have known for our 226 year history, that the fall equinox is a time where you plant your spring bulbs,” he said.

“But certainly there are superstitions that come with it — standing an egg on its end, which is a myth. You could probably stand an egg on end whenever if you are patient enough. And the only time you wouldn’t cast a shadow would be if you could stand directly on the equator with the sun directly overhead at high noon. Then it would be gone for maybe an instant.”