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Spring equinox starts Easter weekend

Posted: March 21, 2008 12:42 a.m.
Updated: May 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Big and bold gazanias are in bloom this week at Canyon Country Park as spring has arrived. Today marks the equinox, in ancient cultures often considered the arrival of spring. On modern calendars, Thursday officially was the first day of spring.

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Today is the spring equinox. It is one of only two days during the year - the other being the autumnal equinox - when the amount of daylight and the amount of darkness we experience is exactly equal.
The word equinox derives from the Latin words "aequus" (equal) and "nox" (night).

In celestial terms, this is the day that the sun is positioned directly above the Earth's equator, or more correctly, the day that the center of the sun crosses the celestial equator (the projection of the Earth's equator onto the sky).

The spring, or "vernal" equinox marks the official first day of spring. Well, at least in the northern hemisphere it does. If you live in Australia or other points below the equator, it marks the first day of autumn. For this reason, many modern-day astronomers and scientists prefer to use the terms "March equinox" and "September equinox" to be more accurate, and to divorce the names from their origins in a time during history when the Northern viewpoint ruled the rest of the world.

In the United States, this auspicious day, which carries connotations of rebirth, growth, and fertility, is rarely celebrated or even noticed. Earth Day, when it was first created in 1970, was celebrated on March 21, but has since been moved to April 22.

The equinox does have something of an association with Easter, which is not surprising considering the correlations between the Resurrection, and the cycle of life that re-starts with the beginning of spring and the end of winter.

The canonical rule states that Easter must fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the March equinox. This year the full moon and the vernal equinox both fall on March 21, so Easter is on Sunday March 23.

If you are a practicing Wiccan, you may celebrate Ostara today. In Wiccanism, a pagan, earth-based form of worship, Ostara is roughly equivalent to Easter. The feast of Ostara celebrates the coming of spring, fertility, and the exuberance of nature.

In other countries, March 21 is quite a big deal. Many cultures and religions celebrate the equinox both formally and informally. Often these celebrations have their origins in ancient pagan agricultural traditions and practices that acknowledge the start of spring as a time of rebirth and growth.

In Iran, the festival of Nowruz is celebrated on March 21, which actually represents the first day of the new year on the ancient Persian calendar. Legend says that Jamshid, the mythical king of Persia, ascended to the throne on this day, an event that is commemorated with two weeks of festivities. The celebration is rooted in Persia's 3,000 year old links with Zoroastrianism, and recalls the ancient creation myths and cosmology of the Persian people.

In Japan, Vernal Equinox Day (shunbon no hi) is a national holiday, a day that the Japanese people spend admiring nature and living things, and visiting the graves of their ancestors. This holiday was first celebrated way back in the year 806.

In Turkey, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Albania, Kurdistan, Zanzibar and various countries of central Asia, the day is also an official holiday.

Many archaeological structures and monuments were built with the equinox in mind. In Egypt, it is believed that the great Sphinx was intentionally built pointed directly at the sun on the day of the vernal equinox.

Historians believe that Stonehenge, the famous stone monument on the Salisbury Plain in southern England, was built by sun-worshipping Stone Age people to predict and track the various equinoxes and solstices.

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