Solstice and Equinox Traditions
Observing holidays is a tradition intertwined with spirituality. The depth of humanity's need for holy days and the biological connection to the earth's yearly cycles are subjects that have not been satisfactorily researched.
Here are some astronomical events that have been used to mark holy days in many different religions for thousands of years. Celebrating these events recognizes both the continuity of humanity over thousands of years and how much we have progressed from the simple agrarians who depended upon astronomical sitings for their survival. For further reading on these topics see here.
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, with the sun at its lowest and weakest. In the Northern Hemisphere it usually occurs around December 21st.
In pagan Scandinavia the winter festival was the Yule, celebrated by burning the hearth fires of the magically significant Yule log. In the Celtic Druid culture, the Winter Solstice was celebrated by hanging sacred mistletoe over a doorway or in a room to offer goodwill to visitors. Germanic tribes decorated a pine or fir tree with candles and tokens. The Inca held midwinter ceremonies at temples that served as astronomical observatories like Machu Pichu.
Romans celebrated this event with Saturnalia, a festival of merrymaking, and decorating their homes and temples with holly and evergreens. Also popular was the exchange of small gifts thought to bring luck on the recipient.
In the fourth century AD, Christian authorities in Rome attempted to eliminate the pagan festivities by adopting December 25th as Christ's birthday. The effort was never completely successful, and eventually many Winter Solstice customs were incorporated into Christmas observances.
Since so many of these traditions have persisted for thousands of years despite extensive efforts to eliminate them, we think it best to celebrate the Winter Solstice with these ancient customs, recognizing our links to the rest of humanity, past and present.
Spring or Vernal Equinox, also known as Ostara, Easter, and St. Patrick's Day, occurs in the middle of March in the Northern Hemisphere. It marks the beginning of Spring and the time when days and nights are of equal length.
Megalithic people on Europes Atlantic fringe calculated the date of the Spring Equinox using circular monuments constructed of huge stones. Germanic tribes associated it with the fertility goddess Ostara. The Mayans of Central America still gather at the pyramid at Chichen Itza which was designed to produce a "serpent" shadow on the Spring Equinox. The Ancient Saxons held a feast day for their version of the fertility goddess, Eostre, on the full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Eostre is associated with the symbols of decorated eggs and hares.
Ancient influences from the worship of the goddess Ostara or Eostre have persisted in the form of fertility symbols of Easter eggs and the hare or rabbit. By the use of these symbols of spring, rebirth, and fertility we reinforce our connection to humanity's past.
Summer Solstice, sometimes known as Midsummer, Litha, or St. John's Day, occurs around June 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a celebration of the longest day of the year and the beginning of Summer.
The first (or only) full moon in June is called the Honey Moon. Tradition holds that this is the best time to harvest honey from the hives and was a popular time to get married because of the events association with fertility gods and godesses. Harvests of St. Johns Wort were used in potions and woven into garlands to decorate and protect houses and domestic animals. Slav and Celt tribes celebrated with huge bonfires and people would jump over the embers for luck. In Scandinavia women and girls ceremonially bathed in rivers.
In Portugal, people say that St. John's Eve water possesses great healing power. Before dawn both cattle and young children bathed in rivers or dew, to ensure health and strength. In Russia, the summer solstice celebration is called Kupalo. Kupalo comes from the verb kupati, to bathe, and mass baths were taken on Midsummer morning.
Celebrating the Summer Solstice with bonfires and ceremonial bathing recognizes and strengthens our connections to nature and humanity.
In the Northern Hemisphere the Autumnal Equinox, occurs around September 23rd or 24th. It is also known as Michaelmas, Mabon, and Harvest Home.
Traditionally, the Japanese marked the spring and fall Equinox with higan, a seven day period in which they remember their ancestors by visiting the family grave, cleaning the tombstone, offering flowers and food, burning incense sticks, and praying.
The Polish Feast of Greenery involves bringing bouquets and foods for blessing by a priest, then using them for medicine or keeping them until the following years harvest. The Roman celebration of the Fall Equinox was dedicated to Pomona, goddess of fruits and growing things.
A feast was celebrated with a traditional well fattened goose which had fed well on the stubble of the fields after the harvest. Another tradition of of the Autumnal Equinox is the use of ginger. All manner of foods seasoned with ginger are part of the day's menu from gingerbread to ginger beer.
In England, the last sheaf of corn harvested represented the `spirit of the field' and was made into a doll. Corn dolls were drenched with water representing rain or burned to represent the death of the grain spirit. Large wickerwork figures were also constructed to represent a vegetation spirit and burnt in mock sacrifice. Farmers and merchants gathered at fairs. Often a large glove was suspended above the fair, symbolizing the handshake of promises and openhandedness and generosity.
The tradition of celebrating the end of summer with a 'burning man' has been enthusiastically revived in the US as a festival of performance art and creativity. Participating in your own burning man celebration is a powerful way to connect with humanity, past and present.
Table of Solstice and Equinox Dates
All times are in Universal Time,
Coordinated (UTC) Remember to account for Daylight Savings Time, where applicable.
When converting zone time to or
from UTC, dates must be properly taken into account. For example, 10 March
at 02:00 UTC is the same as 9 March at 21:00 EST.
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