On March 20, 2023, at 5:24 p.m. ET, spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere, marked by the so-called spring, or vernal, equinox – which, along with the autumn equinox in September, is one of the two moments in the year when the sun is directly above the equator. With days becoming longer and the weather warmer, flowers and trees starting to bloom, and birds and butterflies migrating back northward along the path of the sun, this period is celebrated by many cultures as a time of renewal and rebirth.
The word “equinox” comes from Latin, through the juxtaposition of the terms aequus (equal) and nox (night), signifying that days and nights are equal in length. While for our ancestors, whose timekeeping was less precise than ours, days and nights did seem perfectly equal at this time of the year, today we know that in fact we actually get a bit more daylight than darkness at the equinox, particularly at higher latitudes, since it takes the sun longer to rise and set the closer we get to the poles.
According to the website EarthSky, for sky watchers equinoxes are a perfect time to orient themselves since they are the only two times a year the sun rises due east and sets due west everywhere on our planet. As they put it, the equinox is “a good day for finding east and west from your yard or other favorite site for watching the sky. Just go outside around sunset or sunrise and notice the location of the sun on the horizon with respect to familiar landmarks.”
Moreover, in both hemispheres, the sun sets faster during the equinoxes, since it hits the horizon at the steepest possible angle from the Earth. By contrast, during the winter and summer solstices, the Earth’s tilt is the most extreme, and the sun sets more slowly.
Since thousands of years, people all over the world have celebrated the spring equinox. For instance, at the Mayan site Chichén Itzá in today’s Mexico, the massive pyramid El Castillo was aligned in such a way that a shadow outlining the form of a so-called “snake of light” (Kukulcán) descends the steps at the equinoxes, while in England, Druids and Wiccans used to gather at Stonehenge before dawn to welcome to return of spring.
Nowadays, many cultures around the world have special celebrations at the equinox, such as the Persian New Year – also known as Nauryz, Navruz, or Nowrouz (meaning “new day”) – when people honor new beginnings by welcoming the future and shedding away the past. While the Chinese are trying to stand an egg upright during the equinox – which, according to an old tradition, will bring them good luck – in Japan the Vernal Equinox Day is a public holiday, with people visiting family graves and holding family reunions, in celebration of both past and future.
By Andrei Ionescu, Earth.com Staff Writer
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