Everything about the spring equinox

  • Mar. 30, 2011 12:00 p.m.


Most of us know what the spring or autumn equinox is: twice a year the length of the day and the night is approximately the same.

Our spring equinox took place March 20 this year, when the tilt of the earth’s axis was neither toward or away from the Sun. When was this first observed and why has it been important?

A couple of centuries BCE (Before Christian Era), a Greek astronomer  was said to have identified the passage of the equinoxes, although even earlier Greek sages were aware of them happening. In ancient Persia (now Iran), the New Year (Nowruz) began on the day of the equinox, or the day following, if the actual equinox time occurred before noon.

Nowadays, this is celebrated with the purchase of new clothes for everyone in the family, and the house is cleaned thoroughly. Now we know where ‘spring cleaning’ comes from.

In addition, wheat and lentil seeds were sprouted a few days earlier to represent new growth at this season.

Other cultures in the northern hemisphere discovered and celebrated the date, too. In Japan, for instance, ‘Higan’ is a week of special Buddhist services that take place during equinox times, and there are holidays on those dates in both spring and autumn. The word ‘Higan’ means ‘the other shore’, where the spirits of the departed reach Nirvana after crossing the river. Thus, the dead are remembered at the same time that, in the case of this time of year, rebirth is welcomed.

In Jewish tradition, the sun, moon and stars were made on the fourth day of creation, and every 28 years the sun returns to the position it was in on that day. According to the Talmud, the turning point of that cycle is on the spring equinox.

A more recent occurrence at or near this time is Earth Day. This represents people from all over the earth coming together to celebrate the planet, but also renewing the environment by planting trees and removing polluting garbage. A sort of global spring cleaning, as it were.

So many people have said ‘Easter is so late this year. Why is that?’

Because the date of the celebration of the resurrection of Christ depends on the ecclesiastical approximation of the spring equinox.

Back in 325 C.E. (A.D.), the council of Nicaea determined the date would be on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the equinox. So if the daffodils have come and gone long before Easter this year, blame it on the equinox.

But remember on the other hand how much nicer the weather usually is by the end of April for Easter egg hunts.

People in the northern hemisphere, from Stonehenge to Hawaii, celebrate this special time with rituals sometimes involving circles of life, and always involving the idea of rebirth and  regeneration. So as you indulge in your ritual of spring cleaning this season, remember you’re practicing an ancient custom. And have sympathy for those in the southern hemisphere who must wait until September for their time of renewal to come.


Carla Reed is a member of the Maple Ridge Historical Society.