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Friday, March 20, 2009

A One-Question Quiz about the Equinox

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

On March 20 at 11:44 a.m. (GMT), the sun was directly over the equator on its annual journey northward.

Here's a question. This equinox is properly:

  1. the spring equinox
  2. the autumn equinox
  3. the first day of spring
  4. the first day of autumn
  5. the midpoint of spring
  6. the midpoint of autumn
  7. both a and c
  8. both a and e
  9. both b and d
  10. both b and f
  11. all of the above

Before I give the answer, let's talk about the two conflicts here: spring vs. autumn, and "first day" vs. "midpoint."

For those of us in the northern hemisphere (Europeans, North Americans, most Asians) the sun is coming toward us, making this spring. So we might go for a, c, e, or some combination of those.

But Australians, and most Africans and Latin Americans, are watching the sun move away. For them, this is autumn.

That much is easy to picture.

But what about "the first day"? We in the northern hemisphere are used to hearing that the March equinox is "the first day of spring." But the ancient people (and I agree) held that spring began around the start of February.

Let's back up to winter. Somewhere around December 21 is the shortest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere), as the sun is at its furthest point south. So the days just before and after that date are the second shortest days; the next day before and after are the third shortest; and so on. (This would be easier with a whiteboard!)

So it makes sense to say that the 12 or 13 weeks' worth of "shortest days" is winter.

This, not surprisingly, starts around Oct. 31. Yes, Halloween was in ancient times the first day of winter, the season of the dead.

What would have been the first day of summer? May Day, with its dancing around the Maypole and other fertility rites. And spring began around February 1, celebrated on the 2nd in America as "Groundhog's Day."

So, the answer to my quiz is "k: all of the above."

It's both spring and autumn, depending on where you're standing (as the sage Paul Simon sang, "One man's ceiling is another man's floor").

And this is the first day of the season, according to modern sources like Wikipedia, which says the season of spring runs from the equinox to the solstice.

But even Wikipedia notes that "According to the Celtic tradition … spring [in the northern hemisphere] begins in early February … and continues until early May..." Those are the traditional dates.

So happy equinox. And I hope you've been enjoying the past six weeks of spring. Or autumn. Or not.




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