Ainsley Highland

This upcoming Tuesday is the Autumn equinox, the day when light hours and dark hours are exactly even. It is also the first official day of Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere and Spring in the Southern Hemisphere for the vast majority of countries that use the Gregorian calendar that is customary in Europe and the Americas.

Humans have been using the solstices and equinoxes to mark time and organize calendars for as long as records exist… and in the case of astronomically aligned structures such as Stonehenge in England or ‘Woodhenge’ in Cahokia, USA, well before records exist.

Although it’s not possible to know with any precision how or why prehistoric peoples marked the four cardinal points of the year, there is still thousands of years worth of history and traditions from all around the world once written records began.

September Equinox Traditions

Across the northern hemisphere, the fall equinox coincides with harvest time, and as a result, equinox harvest festivals abound!

Ancient Egypt is an interesting exception: though technically located in the Northern Hemisphere, the way agriculture was based off the Nile rather than purely the seasons, mean fall was actually the planting rather than harvesting time. Instead, Egypt celebrated the new year at the Autumn Equinox.

In China, the Harvest Moon Festival celebrates the successful harvest and offers thanks to the moon and is still celebrated in China and Vietnam today. The Chinese calendar is lunar based, rather than solar, and the Harvest Moon is the full moon that falls closest to the autumn equinox.

Ancient Greece had at least two different myths that attributed the shift in seasons to either the death or deep depression of different fertility gods, and various festivals and celebrations thanking these gods for the bounty of the harvest and encouraging their rebirth or return.

In Catholic areas of Europe, Michelmas, still celebrated as a minor festival today, was created as one of four “quarter days” celebrating various Christian ideals and spaced to fall on or near the equinoxes and solstices. Though ostensibly the feast of Saint Michael, Michelmas retains the older pagan strains of celebrating fall, the harvest, and the progression towards winter.

Throughout the British Isles, harvest festivals stretch well beyond recorded history, but since the introduction of Christianity, tend to occur on the Sunday of the full moon closest to the September Equinox. It is from this tradition that the modern pagan celebration of Mabon comes.

The British harvest festivals were also the source of the first “Thanksgiving” that is now celebrated on the third Thursday in November in the US. Although most Americans learn in school that the event commemorates a celebration between English pilgrims and Native Americans in the first British colony in Massachusetts, most of us do not learn that this original ‘thanksgiving’ occurred near Michelmas at the end of September and in celebration of the first harvest.

A Time for Thanksgiving

As you might have noticed from the brief summaries above, key themes surrounding harvest festivals involve giving thanks for the bounty of the land received, and a view that the Earth is dying, or entering a period of rest, before the rebirth or renewal of the next spring.

Although the aspect of literally bringing in the harvest may be less applicable in the modern context, many of these festivals also seek, in a spiritual and metaphorical sense to “reap what you have sown.” As gratitude for a literal harvest that is the difference between survival and starvation has receded in importance in the modern world, modern celebrations increasingly emphasize the symbolic nature of these ideas.

Many traditional symbols of the harvest remain ubiquitous to fall today: the cornucopia often seen in Thanksgiving imagery is also known as the Horn of Plenty, and has symbolized the wealth of harvest for centuries. Apples are another common symbol of the season in North America and Europe, as the apple harvest coincides with the season.

Especially in a year as challenging as this one, I believe it is all the more cathartic to acknowledge our connection to each other and the Earth, and to celebrate and give thanks for all the good things we have seen. Whenever possible, I like to mark the season by apple picking. It’s not only a wonderful and quintessentially Fall activity, that gets me outside and into the sunlight, but I like to think that at least symbolically, I’m participating in the rhythms of human life since the dawn of agriculture. In some indefinable way, acknowledging that deep history, and the triumphs of all those past humans who made my life possible fills me with a sense of connection to humanity and life itself, and make it possible to genuinely feel thankful for the blessing of life.

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