Today is… the equinox?

Vernal Equinox Quiz

True or False: The vernal equinox is when spring begins.

Not exactly. The beginning of spring depends on where you live, and it is more a cultural phenomenon than a meteorological one.

Tradition in Ireland has spring beginning with St Brigid’s Day on 1 February. Spring weather may not happen for months yet, but their season of spring lasts from 1 February to 1 May, with the equinox falling in the middle of the season. This was probably true as well for the Celtic people who followed the Coligny Calendar, if not generally in Celtic-language cultures. The Coligny month that would have corresponded to the time of the equinox was named Edrinios, which means (approximately) ‘fire season’, which is either a reference to the warming of spring — or an average month in California…

Those places that celebrate Chinese New Year say that spring begins with the New Year, which is also named the Spring Festival. It does not ever fall in March, let alone on the equinox. Nowruz, the Persian New Year is also the first day of spring in their calendar, and in this case it actually is on the equinox. So there is one culture that begins spring on the equinox.

Those who followed the Roman calendar and mutations thereof also began the new year’s cycle at the same time as spring. This New Year festival took place in March. However, they didn’t quite hit the equinox. Much like Christmas, the date of the Roman New Year celebration coalesced around the 25th, which is about where the equinox fell in the solar year in Roman times. However, when Julius Caesar moved the New Year celebrations to 1 January, the old festival of spring drifted a bit and then landed on March 1st, being a good solid date to begin business-y things. Most Romans subsequently honored both the new spring and the new year on March 1st, not January 1st. And then just to confuse things a bit more, the Roman Catholic Church tied Lady Day (the Feast of the Annunciation) to the old New Year festival, 25 March, which is coincidentally also the traditionally accepted date for the creation of the universe — a beginning if there ever was such a thing! Thus much of Europe welcomed in spring on Lady Day and left New Year’s Day on 1 January.

Spring doesn’t actually exist in tropical regions where there is little year-round difference in temperature. Here the growing season is tied to annual rains more often than not. And the rains usually come after the summer solstice. 

For farmers in New England, spring begins when the maple sap is running, and it’s planting season when the oak leaves are as big as a squirrel’s ear. Obviously, this doesn’t happen on the same date each year, and it’s very rare that planting begins as early as the equinox. This year we might be able to see the soil… maybe… but it’s not warm enough to accept seeds.

In North America, we say the season of spring begins on the vernal equinox. But that’s just a human convention and has little to do with either the season or the equinox.

True or False: The vernal equinox is the day when day and night are equal length.

True, right? Nope. ‘Equinox’ does in fact mean ‘equal night’, but the calendrical equinox is not that day. There is no one day all over the globe that day and night are equal; latitude affects day length. Actually, you know this already. At the equator, day and night are always equally twelve hours in length, but at the poles it’s ‘day’ for weeks around the summer solstices and ‘night’ lasts all winter. Well, similarly, the day when day and night are equal varies with latitude.

Let’s look at the Northern Hemisphere since I’m talking about the vernal equinox (which is six months away for the Southerners). The sun’s apparent path through the sky moves north between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. At the equator, as I said, day length is always twelve hours. As the sun moves north — or more properly as the northern hemisphere of Earth becomes more tilted toward the sun — northern day length increases along the sun’s apparent path. So Florida will see equal day and night before Vermont — two days sooner as a matter of fact. 

At New England latitudes, day and night are closest to equal (12 hours each) on St. Patrick’s Day — today! — 3-4 days before the equinox. By this year’s equinox on 20 March (at 11:33am), day will be nearly ten minutes longer than night in my part of the world.

True or False: The vernal equinox is when the sun rises due east and sets due west.

Somewhat false. Or maybe truth-y… This too is dependent on latitude, but much less so. At the equator, the sun always appears to rise over the horizon directly due east. In the subtropical regions, the sun rises due east for several days around the vernal equinox. Up north where I live, the sun rises at 90°E on March 18th and 19th. By the equinox, it’s one degree north of east. Not that you can see the difference, but still, the equinox is not when the sun rises and sets exactly due east and west.

True or False: The vernal equinox is when the sun’s apparent path, the ecliptic, intersects the celestial equator, which is a ring around the Earth directly above the planetary equator.

Or in uglier terms, the vernal equinox occurs when the apparent ecliptic longitude of the Sun is 0°.

Yes. This is true. It’s also really hard to visualize. Or much care about.

But this brings up a dilemma for those interested in the exact timing of astronomical events. As you can see there is some confusion over exactly what event even takes place on the equinox. If for some reason you need to know exactly when the sun will rise in the east or when day and night are equal length, use an almanac for your geographical location. It will very likely not be on the equinox. On the other hand, if you do need to know when the sun will be at the cross-roads of the ecliptic and the celestial equator, that is the time of the equinox — and it is a very short time!

However, if you are celebrating spring and renewal and the warming of your home town, you can go ahead and do that when it happens in your locality — from when the sap starts running until whenever you figure summer has begun. Time is relative. Make of it what you will!

That Other Calendrical Observance

Obviously, there is another reason to note this day. Since about the tenth century, Irish Catholics (and many others as well!) have been commemorating the anniversary of St Patrick’s death on 17 March in the mid-5th century. Patrick was already a legend lost in time before his cult became popular, so we only have fragments of tales from his life and these are mostly recorded hundreds of years after he lived. What seems to be true is that he was the son of a British shepherd, or more likely a scion of a house that made its wealth by producing wool for export. He does seem to have been educated as a child, not something that is expected of the son of a peasant farmer. He was also an early convert to Christianity. It’s probable that his parentage is, actually, Roman or Romanized British — which would explain both the conversion to the new Roman religion and the education.

When Patrick was a teenager, Irish slave traders captured him and sold him in Ireland, where he pretty much continued his life as an over-educated shepherd. After a few years, he managed to escape or perhaps was sold again. In any case he began wandering for a couple years and finally managed to make his way back to his family home. But he was not destined to stay there. After a series of dreams and omens, Patrick became convinced that his mission in life was to convert the Irish to Christianity. So he set sail for Ireland and apparently was wildly successful, wielding metaphorical clover leaves, casting out snakes, and transforming the country through all manner of miracles.

However, he had his enemies and was perpetually turning to his god for protection. There were many attempts on his life and he seems to have never lived in one place. Nor does he have a family in his folklore, though he did have a devoted charioteer and friend who gave up his own life to save Patrick from a murderous plot. Still, there is no community that bears his name like the other missionary monks of his day, and in his mythology he is presented largely as a solitary wanderer.

He became a saint not long after his death, and Christian communities sprouted all over Ireland and beyond. Irish Christians were a peripatetic bunch, going on missions and establishing churches and religious communities from Scotland all the way to Central Europe. Patrick, himself, is likely to have traveled to Rome or Constantinople in his wandering years after his escape from slavery. By the time of his Irish mission, he is uniformly named a bishop, and in his day — not much over a century after Constantine decided to convert his empire — there were few in Europe who might have conferred this position upon him. Either he was self-styled (not impossible) or he had dealings with Church hierarchy.

So by the tenth century, Patrick was honored as the founder of Irish Christianity and the preserver of the faith in Northern Europe. St Patrick’s Day began as a day to celebrate his life and works. It was and remains a day of long church services. However, it is also very near the time when Europe, including Ireland, was celebrating the renewal of spring and the new year. It is a time that has long been seen as one of new beginnings, appropriate for the feast of the man who remade Ireland. But as such, even when this day was purely a religious festival, it had a nationalistic hue. There have been special foods and processions and colorful Irish pageantry intertwined with this day for centuries. And when the Irish began their diaspora in the 19th century, they took all these elements with them.

So we have parades and corned beef and cabbage (which, let me just say, is not an Irish tradition, being that St Patrick’s Day always falls in the Lenten fast). There is Irish music and dancing and storytelling all over the world on this day. Of course, some of the largest celebrations are in the US where Irish communities managed to preserve their roots and gain wealth and prestige. The Boston St Patrick’s Day parade is truly epic in scale. And afterwards there are church suppers all around Massachusetts hoping to gather the thousands of parade-goers into the Church.

I’ve never been to one of these suppers. My Irish grandparents were sort of old school when it came to Patrick. You went to mass in the morning, and you ate potatoes and cabbage for dinner. (My mother hates cabbage to this day…) Sometimes, the holiday fell on a Friday and then there was fish, but no beef, salted or otherwise. Also no beer, green or otherwise. I’m not sure if this was part of their fast though, because they didn’t drink much beer in any case, preferring more distilled spirits.

My grandmother also thought it was nonsense to wear green on St Patrick’s Day. In all likelihood, Patrick dressed in Roman whites — which may also have been the color of druidic costumery. Green has only been associated with Ireland (and not with Patrick specifically) since the mid 17th century, when the natives (and the assimilated Normans) used it to contrast with the more bloody colors of their English overlords. But I like green and any excuse to wear it is fine with me. Though I won’t be one of those annoying folks who goes around pinching people who forget.

So today, I wear green; I often eat cabbage and potatoes; and I’ve been known to go watch a parade — though not often. More often than not, I go find music and dancing and immerse myself in the culture of my roots. Since moving to New England, where the actual equinox falls on St Patrick’s Day, I’ve been doing equinox things by day and Irish things in the evening. By the time you read this, I’ll likely be up on the shores of Lake Champlain, watching the birds as they argue about nesting sites. (Or we think that’s what they’re on about. They could be debating the nature of time, for all we know…)

Then, it’s a stop in Burlington at one of the best Irish pubs in the US. And then it’s home for the stupidest movie of all time — The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns, a Romeo & Juliet adaptation in which Roger Daltry is the king of the fairies, Whoopi Goldberg is some version of the Morrigan, and Randy Quaid clumps through his role trying to save Ireland from the fairy wars. There is pretty good music. And there is abundant sap… which is about as Irish as it gets.

From the Book Cellar

Tomie dePaola was half Irish. He left behind a number of picture books on Irish legends and life. He produced one of the most beautiful picture books on St Patrick, which also is surprisingly informative. Apparently, he was under duress from his Irish mother to ‘remember the Irish patron saint with a book’. He must have made her happy with Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland (1992, Holiday House).

The other books I’ve chosen for today are all about leprechauns. Admittedly, this has nothing to do with St Patrick, but they are all wonderful glimpses at Irish culture — and that actually is part of this day!

Leprechauns Never Lie by Lorna & Lecia Balian. (My copy is a reprint of the 1980 classic put out by Star Bright Books in 2004.)

Fiona’s Luck by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (2007, Charlesbridge).

That’s What Leprechauns Do by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (2005, Clarion Books).

The Leprechaun’s Gold by Pamela Duncan Edwards, illustrated by Henry Cole (2004, Katherine Tegen Books).

Too Many Leprechauns: Or How the Pot of Gold Got to the End of the Rainbow by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (2007, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers).

Tim O’Toole and the Wee Folk by Gerald McDermott (1990, Viking Penguin).

©Elizabeth Anker 2022