For those of us who love astronomy, the equinoxes are an overlooked but pivotal part of the astronomical year. On these two days – which occur in September and March – there’s a special balance in the world. People in millennia past understood that these days were important: they marked the changing seasons from summer to winter (in September) and back to summer (in March). Some of these September equinox celebrations have persisted to the modern day.
The September equinox is also the beginning of aurora season in the northern hemisphere. If you don’t find one of these celebrations that piques your interest, you could always start planning a trip to see the northern lights!
If you’re curious how people around the world celebrate the September equinox, we’ve researched some of the different ways. From the U.K. to India to China, learn about September equinox celebrations from pole to pole.
Featured photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Flickr
Mabon (United Kingdom)
If you’ve never heard of Mabon, that’s probably because it’s a relatively new name for a very old celebration. Ancient Celtic people marked the cyclical behavior of the sun with a series of celebrations called Sabbats; there were originally six of them. In the 1970s, American author Aidan Kelley assigned new names to these Sabbats, and added two more based on the equinoxes. The name he gave the September equinox is Mabon.
Mabon is a time when pagans can celebrate and give thanks for the summer months, take part in the harvest, and pay tribute to the coming darkness of winter. It’s also a time to prepare for Samhain, the bigger festival that occurs at the beginning of winter (around November 1st).
Some of the ways to celebrate Mabon include building an altar with harvested produce like fruits and vegetables – especially apples, which ripen at the time of Mabon – , meditating on balance and gratitude, and sharing food in a community.
Stonehenge Sunrise (United Kingdom)
Some who celebrate Mabon will also gather at Stonehenge in England to watch the sunrise on the September equinox. These gatherings – which also occur on the March equinox, winter solstice, and summer solstice – have become increasingly popular. In particular, the Neo-Druids gather at the ancient seasonal site to give thanks for the harvest and prepare for winter.
Equinox and solstice celebrations at Stonehenge are open to the public. Unfortunately they are not happening this year (2020) but keep your eyes peeled for future celebrations once we can all gather together again!
The Snake of Sunlight (Mexico)
Another popular gathering place at the September equinox (and in March) is at the ancient Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza in Mexico. Like Stonehenge, many of the buildings in the Chichen Itza complex are arranged according to the movements of the sun.
The main pyramid, El Castillo, is the primary location for equinox gatherings: at the precise moment of the equinox, a shadow forms on the main stairs that looks like a “snake of sunlight” slithering down the stairs.
Also similar to Stonehenge, this event is open to the public (most years) if you want to attend this equinox event someday in the future.
Higan (彼岸) (Japan)
In Japan, there’s a Buddhist celebration called Higan, or Higan-e, which is celebrated during the week of the September and March equinoxes. This is because at the equinox, the sun sets in west – which is where the Japanese Buddhists believe the land of the afterlife is located.
Both equinoxes have been national holidays since the Meiji period. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves. Higan is also a time of meditation and to visit living relatives.
Moon Festival (China/Vietnam)
Also in Asia, people in China and Vietnam celebrate the September equinox as the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival. It is typically celebrated on the full moon closest to the September equinox. (This year, that will actually be on October 1st.)
The Moon Festival celebrates the summer harvest – like so many other equinox celebrations on this list. People celebrate by giving mooncake to friends and family. Mooncakes are a delicious pastry with lotus, sesame seeds, duck egg, or dried fruit on the inside. The Moon Festival is also a great time to spend time moon-gazing!
In the southern U.S., some people celebrate the Moon Festival by giving Moon Pies; a similar holiday in Korea is called Chuseok.
There’s one last festival that takes place close to the September equinox: the Christian celebration of Michaelmas. It is also known as the Feast of Michael and All Angels, and takes place on September 29th.
While Michalemas is not a major festival in most churches, some Catholic churches still celebrate it. Some scholars believe the feast was set near the autumn equinox to draw the faithful away from Pagan celebrations, as are several other Christian holidays (like Christmas near the winter solstice!).
If you choose to celebrate Michaelmas, you might enjoy some secular activities if church isn’t your thing. Traditional Michaelmas activities including gathering and eating nuts or blackberries, or eating a fattened goose.
Other September Equinox Celebrations
There are several other September equinox and autumnal celebrations around the world too – but they vary in detail and purpose.
- In Vilnius, Lithuiania, people light candles after sunset during the autumn equinox celebration at the Neris River waterfront.
- In Poland, people celebrate the Feast of Greener by getting foods and bouquets blessed by a priest and using them for medicine.
- Hindu people in India celebrate Navaratri, a festival that lasts several days in the months of September and October. The festival honors the divine feminine Devi (Durga).
These are just some of the fascinating September equinox celebrations around the world. Have you heard of others, or do you celebrate the September equinox in a special way? Let us know in the comments.