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September Equinox Customs and Holidays

The September equinox, also known as the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere, has been linked to many myths and superstitions in history. It is a time of the year when festivals and celebrations of different faiths occur around the world.

September Equinox Customs
Mooncakes are eaten during the Chinese Moon Festival. ©iStockphoto.com/Kit Sen Chin

Myths and superstitions

According to myth, it is believed that the September equinox is a time of balance when “day and night are equal” and that that by some mystical force one can balance eggs on their end on these days. Some believe that one can only balance an egg within a few hours before or after the exact time of the equinox.

According to Jewish superstition, when Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac at the autumnal equinox, and blood appeared on his knife. Another superstition relating to the four Tekufot, which refers to the equinoxes and solstices, is that during the September equinox a mysterious precipitation poisoned all water, which was not be drawn or drunk.

In many cultures, the September equinox is a sign of autumn in the northern hemisphere. In Greek mythology autumn begins as the goddess Persephone returns to the underworld to live with her husband Hades. It has also been believed that magically it was a good time to enact rituals for protection and security as well as reflect on successes or failures from the previous months. Animals associated with the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere are dogs, wolves and birds of prey. Mythical creatures associated with this time of the year include gnomes, minotaurs and the sphinx.

Celebrations and festivities

Higan, or Higan-e, is a week of Buddhist services observed in Japan during both the September and March equinoxes when day and night are equal at length. Both equinoxes have been national holidays since the Meiji period (1868-1912). Before World War II, they were known as koreisai, or festivals of the Imperial ancestors. After the war, when the national holidays were renamed, they became simply spring and autumn equinoxes. Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana after crossing the river of existence. It celebrates the spiritual move from the world of suffering to the world of enlightenment and is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning and decorating their graves and reciting sutras. Buddhist prayers, rice balls and sushi are offered. It is a time for the Japanese to worship their imperial ancestors.

The Christian church replaced many early pagan equinox celebrations with Christianized observances over the years. For example, Michaelmas (also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels), on September 29, fell near the September equinox because it was associated with the beginning of autumn. During the middle ages it was celebrated as a holy day of obligation but the tradition waned in the 18th century. It is still celebrated in some places as the “festival of strong will” during the autumnal equinox.

On the autumnal equinox, many pagans celebrate Mabon as one of the eight Sabbats (a celebration based on the cycles of the sun). Mabon celebrates the second harvest and the beginning of winter preparations. It is the time to respect the impending dark while giving thanks to the sunlight.

In China the Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival, is celebrated around (but not precisely) the time of the September equinox. This occasion dates back more than 3000 years and occurs around the time of the full moon. It celebrates the abundance of the summer's harvest and one of the main foods is the mooncake filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit. This tradition originated from the ancient tradition of making offerings to the sun in the spring and to the moon in the autumn. It is also a time for families to get together and people often travel long distances to be with their loved ones. The streets are decorated with lanterns, incenses are burned and fire dragon dances take place.

Please note that while the effort has been taken to ensure that various holidays, observances and traditions are mentioned, not all of observations across the world and throughout time have been covered in this article.

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