Not Quite Equal Night

The March equinox marks the sun’s crossing above the Earth’s equator, moving from south to north. It is also called the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere as it marks the beginning of spring and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. The March 20, 2023 equinox officially arrives tomorrow at 21:24 UTC. That’s 5:24 p.m. in Paradelle.

Equi + nox in Latin means equal + night and you may have been taught that night and day on the equinox are exactly 12 hours long. That is not entirely accurate. The day is just a bit longer than the night on an equinox.

If we defined sunrise and sunset as the moment when the geometric center of the Sun passes the horizon, then the day and night would be exactly 12 hours long. But we don’t. Sunrise and Sunset are defined as the exact moment the upper edge of the Sun’s disk touches the eastern and the western horizon, respectively. It takes perhaps a few minutes for the Sun to fully set and that makes the day just a bit longer than the night on the equinoxes. Plus, I don’t live near the Atlantic Ocean or have a clear view of the eastern horizon so the Sun “rises” for me later by the time it goes above the First Watchung Mountain.

Do you ever take note of how the arc of the Sun moves in the sky?

I have noticed it since I was a boy based on which windows in the house it appeared in the morning or at sunset. Birds and butterflies notice the change in daylight. Like the Sun, they are moving northward along the Sun’s path. There are earlier sunrises, later sunsets, sprouting plants, and more bird and animal activity this month. The chipmunks have not started scurrying around my backyard yet, but they will soon.

Of course, the Sun isn’t moving at all. This illusion is caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and constant motion in orbit. 

Even if day and night aren’t exactly equal tomorrow, there is a day when they will be. That day is called equilux (equal+light). The date depends on your latitude and can occur several days to weeks before or after an equinox. For me, it was on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

Here in Paradelle, Daylight Saving Time started on March 12 and that pushed the times for sunrise and sunset ahead an hour. Silly humans.

Day and Night Are Equal

sun moon

Spring has arrived. For a very long time, spring has symbolized renewal and rebirth. It is more than just sunshine, buds and blossoms.

It is not so surprising that the ancient Romans saw this time around the vernal equinox as the beginning of the new year. Their Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night) is for the two moments of the year when both day and night are equally long. But the spring equinox is the start of new life, while the autumn equinox marks the ending of things.

Many religions have incorporated spring into festivals, traditions, and holy days. Easter and Passover are the ones that get the most attention but there are other celebrations of spring.

Persia’s Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz originated in the 5th century B.C.  It celebrates the beginning of the growing season with decorated eggs and plant seedlings.

The Chinese festival of Qingming, or “Pure Brightness,” occurs in early April and honors the changing of the seasons with offerings of flowers, food, incense, and money to one’s ancestors’ graves. It has been celebrated for about 2500 years,

Qingming continues to be a highly anticipated annual event. The Japanese custom of Hanami (flower viewing) is the Japanese appreciation of the spring’s beautiful but brief spring blossoms like cherry and plum. This celebration is about 1,000 years ago old. It was started by aristocrats, but now it is celebrated by everyone.

I have written about the vernal equinox for the life of this blog. I have looked at all the official celebrations and at some of the unofficial traditions, such as spring cleaning. It is the season of change. Plant some seeds, literally and figuratively. Take care of them. It takes time for a harvest.

Eostre and a Spring Hare

A Lunar Hare by Mandy Walden

Today is Easter Sunday, the Christian holy day whose date is based on the cycles of the moon. Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday following the full Moon that occurs on or just after the spring equinox.

I have written before about the word “Easter” which has its origin in earlier pagan traditions that worshiped Eostre, the goddess of springtime. It was a seasonal celebration of the return of the sun after winter.

The non-sectarian Easter bunny first arrived in America in the 1700s with German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and transported their tradition of an egg-laying hare called “Osterhase” or “Oschter Haws.” Children made nests in which this creature could lay its colored eggs.

A rabbit that lays eggs?  The mythological origin seems to date back the sacred animal of the goddess Ostara who was a German goddess of Springtime. She may have been an invention of Jacob Grimm who was one of the Grimm Brothers of the fairy tales) but also a folklorist. In 1835, he published a book of German Mythology. He thought that Ostara might have been the German version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of Springtime called Eostre from whom we get the name Easter.

The pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons celebrated Eostre’s feast day on the Vernal Equinox in March. Eostre’s symbolic animal was the spring hare (rabbit) and this association with eggs and hares was co-opted into the Christian holiday of Easter in order to make Easter more easily accepted in converting the pagans to Christianity.

Coloring and painting eggs are things the ancient Persians did for Nowrooz, their New Year celebration, which falls on the Spring equinox. There are images on the walls of Persepolis showing people carrying eggs for Nowrooz to the king.

At the Jewish Passover Seder, a hard-boiled egg dipped in salt water symbolizes the Passover sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.


An Easter basket from nature – robin nest

Spring and All

Spring slips into place today. There is a good chance that where you are now doesn’t look or feel like spring. In Paradelle, it still looks like winter but for a few buds on trees or shoots poking out of the muddy ground. Of course, you might be south of me and it looks like summer, or far north where winter still reigns.

Spring 2021 in the Northern Hemisphere will begin on March 20 and ends on
June 20. By that last day of spring, it will probably look and feel like summer here.

In William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Spring and All,” the opening is rather ominous.
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

Williams wrote the poem not long after T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” was published. Eliot’s poem also opens with a not-so-favorable view of early spring.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Eliot goes on to use an image of winter that is not typical:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

When we brought my first son home from the hospital, it was the first day of spring and the daffodils, crocuses, and wood hyacinths were covered with snow.  Spring is a fickled season.

In literature and mythology, spring usually concerns themes of rebirth and renewal with symbols from the season. Spring also refers to love, hope, youth and growth. The seasonal symbolism for this period may also allude to religious celebrations such as Passover or Easter.

Today is that moment that is the Vernal Equinox. Vernal translates to “new” or “fresh.” The two equinoxes come from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The time of daylight between sunrise and sunset has been growing slightly longer each day since the Winter Solstice in December. Of course, we messed with the celestial plan last weekend with Daylight Saving Time.

I still try to mark the vernal equinox as it has been seen for centuries as a turning point. It is not the only turning point, but daylight does defeat darkness, and that is a reason to celebrate.

Soon, I hope the only things like snowfall here will the storm of blossoms from cherry and other spring-blooming trees.

Such An Early Spring

spring flowers
Image by Queena Deng from Pixabay

In the midst of this COVID-19 virus pandemic, the coming of spring may not be noticed as much as in previous years. In exactly 12 hours from the time this article posts it will be officially Spring via the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. It slips into place at 11:49 PM ET. The lateness of that shouldn’t stop you from feeling spring all day.

We just moved our clocks forward an hour, so does that mean the equinox really will occur at 9:49 or have they adjusted that? I’ll trust the astronomers have done their homework.

This year is the earliest that the vernal equinox has occurred in 124 years. On the Gregorian calendar, the Northward equinox can occur as early as 19 March or as late as 21 March at Greenwich. This year’s slightly earlier 19th is the first time since 1896 that we mark it today.

Why does the start of the seasons vary? A year is not an even number of days and so neither are the seasons. Plus the Earth’s elliptical orbit skews causing the planet’s axis to point in a different direction. Astronomers call that precession. And the pull of gravity from the other planets also affects the location of Earth in its orbit.

The vernal equinox is really just a moment, but spring will be 92.771 days.

Vernal translates to “new” or “fresh” and equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night) because the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset has been growing slightly longer each day since the Winter Solstice in December.

The vernal equinox has been marked by cultures for centuries as the turning point when daylight begins to win out over darkness. It seems like a reason to celebrate in some way.

Though I don’t think the pandemic will “miraculously” go away because the weather will be warming, I do hope that we “flatten the curve” in April and see the virus turning – and not just in spring and summer but continuing into autumn and next winter.

A Day When Some Things Are Equal

When I stumbled half-asleep into my bathroom this morning a little past 7 a.m., the Sun was just rising over the mountain ridge due East. It didn’t signal the Spring (Vernal) Equinox for 2018, but I did sleepily think about people gathered at Stonehenge to mark an ancient ceremony.

I still have time to celebrate that equinox moment because for the Northern Hemisphere it occurs at 12:15 PM ET today. It is not like an eclipse. There is nothing to see or feel. And my Paradelle neighbors are sure to point out that there is still a lot of snow on the ground and more predicted for this first day of spring.

The vernal equinox can happen on March 19, 20, or 21. It means spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. This astronomical spring begins today and will end in June. The illumination of Earth by the Sun is equal. The tilt of the Earth’s axis is now inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. More equality. The Sun is vertically above a point on the Equator.

Our ancient ancestors knew something was happening today. Eventually, they built devices and even places like Stonehenge to measure and mark changes in the Sun’s movements.

Many of them thought the Sun was moving closer to Earth, and so the Earth would become warmer. At least that is what those in the Northern Hemisphere observed.

They were wrong,but they were correct in marking that today was midway between the sun’s lowest path across the sky in winter and highest path across the sky in summer.

My own Stonehenge – and the way I taught my young sons –  is using the windows of my home. I now know where the Sun rises in the back of my home, and where it sets in the western windows. With my sons, we one year marked those places month by month and watched the Sun move North and then South in winter from one window in the corner of the family room to the patio doors.

Today the Sun rose in the true East, and this evening it will set true West.  Take note.