Tag Archives: Spring Equinox

Springtide Balance

We come to a time of balance today with the arrival in the Northern Hemisphere of the spring equinox. The time of equinox balance tonight is 5:58 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. We are halfway now between the shortest day of the year (Midwinter in December) and the longest day (Midsummer in June). The sun rises pretty much due east, no matter where you are located on the globe, and sets pretty much due west. All is equal for a brief time and then the number of daylight hours begins to overtake nighttime hours in the North, as we head toward summer. And what is gained in the North is taken away in the South; there, winter is approaching, and there, this day brings the autumn equinox. It is a constantly changing beautiful balance, the balance of our planet spinning on its tilted axis as it orbits the sun.

Sunset on this first day of spring will also bring Purim, a holiday in the Jewish calendar marked by costumes, noisemakers called graggers, and delicious hamantashen, triangular shaped pastries filled with things like poppy seeds or prune or cinnamon and walnuts.

As for Seth and me, we are bringing in this springtide on a ship in the Western Caribbean. We are two people who do not like large crowds, and we have learnt to walk certain decks and to be in certain places at certain times so that it almost seems like there are not an additional 3,998 people sailing with us. The sea air is wonderful. Neither of us is seasick, but as we walk the deck, lifting one foot up before the other, we sometimes have to think long and hard about where to put that foot once it’s up above the ground. As it would happen, balance is foremost on our minds this equinox day, and maybe that is just right.

Image: An illustration for a book of science by Sebastian Münster, 1600. [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.]


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Shine All Around Us by Day and by Night


It’s the Second of February: Groundhog Day in the United States. It’s a day that every school kid knows, which is impressive for a traditional weather marker day, for there are scores of traditional weather marker days throughout the year… but this is the one that has endured. It all centers on one groundhog in a town in Pennsylvania, and it relates to the story of Imbolc that began yesterday, for there begins the underground stirrings of this old Earth, awakening from long dark winter. As the earth awakens, so does Punxsutawney Phil. Should he emerge from his underground burrow this morning to see his shadow, it will mean forty days more of winter. No shadow? An early spring. This relates to centuries-old weather lore for this day, like this:

If the sun shines bright on Candlemas Day,
The half of the winter’s not yet away.

Today, at Candlemas, churches will be blessing the candles they will use the year long. But at home there are traditions we can follow that are more akin to the central core of this time of year, with its focus on the coming of spring. Spring comes because the sun is returning––we have reached, in the Northern Hemisphere, the halfway point between the darkness of the winter solstice and the balance of the spring equinox. One of the easiest and most enjoyable customs for Candlemas is this: At sunset, we light every lamp in the house. And hey, I know we’re busy people… so if it’s well after sunset before your whole family is gathered in the house, then so be it, do it then. There is something fun and wacky and maybe even a little decadent about doing this, though, and so we run around the house turning on every light, lighting every candle, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And in this simple act, you’ve connected to a custom that goes back through the ages.

Dinner, if you want to continue following old customs, might be crepes, which is a European tradition. In Mexico, tamales and hot chocolate are customary. (Hot chocolate with dinner? That’s pretty decadent, too.) The point is, no matter what, to celebrate the fact that light is returning, for it is: once we pass that point of equinox in March, daylight will begin taking over night once again.

Candlemas begins as the day that Mary went to the temple for the rite of purification, which is a Jewish custom: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. And so here we are, forty days past Christmas. Tonight is the night to take down the Christmas decorations, should you still have them up. And so we pack up what is left, save it for next midwinter, and we return the Christmas greenery to nature, returning the gifts we borrowed for the Yuletide season. Leaving things longer than tonight invites bad luck (and also puts us out of step with the seasonal round of the year).

But we rarely leave one holiday completely as we jump to the next; usually they are connected, like steps along a footbridge. Yesterday St. Brigid bridged us from winter to spring, and so today with Candlemas we find ourselves at the opposite side of a bridge that began with Christmas. Mary went to the temple carrying her infant son forty days after his birth and it was there at the temple that she met the elders Anna and Simeon. The elders, wise and all-seeing, recognized the child immediately as the light of the world. This is the story basis for Candlemas, for the blessing of candles this day, and the connexion between the story and the celestial events that bring us closer to spring. And so here is my favorite music for Candlemas: It’s an old hymn called “Jesus, the Light of the World,” recorded by one of my favorite ensembles, the Boston Camerata. It’s from their album An American Christmas. I think of it as more a Candlemas song than a Christmas song, and it’s a fine song to sing or hum as you light all those lamps in the house and a fine album to play as the last vestiges of Christmas are stored away for yet another year.

As for Punxsutawney Phil, this morning he did not see his shadow. Spring will come early, they say.


Image: “Alte Frau mit Knaben bei Kerzenlicht” (Old Woman with Boys by Candlelight), attributed to Johann Georg Trautmann. Oil on wood, 17th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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“Welcome Back, my Dear Friend. Welcome Back the Sun.”


Perhaps you heard the National Public Radio story not long ago about Ittoqqortoormiit, a small town in Greenland, experiencing its first sunrise in 58 days. That was on January 20th and daylight there that day, after 58 days of continuous darkness, lasted for 1 hour, 5 minutes and 20 seconds. Here we are today at the First of February, and already daylight in Ittoqqortoormiit has increased to nearly 4 hours and 35 minutes. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in 12 days, but this is life at the Arctic Circle: a bit more extreme than the temperate world. What is tremendously apparent in Ittoqqortoormiit these days is that winter is waning: spring is on its way.

Most of us do not live in the Arctic Circle, however, and as we head further south toward the equator, the shift in hours of daylight and the shift toward spring is less apparent and less dramatic. But rest assured it is happening. The Earth continues to shift in its seat and the wheel of the year remains in constant motion. Today, the First of February, we reach another spoke in that wheel: we are now about halfway between the Midwinter Solstice of December and the Spring Equinox of March, and tonight brings Imbolc, a holiday of the Celtic calendar.

The red letter days that mark this time are varied and fascinating. There is Candlemas tomorrow, and also Groundhog Day. Of the two, most Americans are at least familiar with the latter, while Candlemas is one that many have never heard of. There is an old, old tradition that has Christmastime ending at Candlemas, and for those who follow these old ways, Candlemas is the day that the Christmas greenery must come down. To have the Yuletide decorations up longer than Candlemas is to risk bringing bad luck upon the home.

But Candlemas and Groundhog Day are tomorrow. Now it is Imbolc––the start of spring by traditional reckoning of time in the Northern Hemisphere––and it is St. Brigid’s Day. Both are sacred to Ireland: Imbolc goes back to the country’s Celtic roots, and St. Brigid’s Day is second in stature in Ireland only to St. Patrick’s Day. At this cross quarter day, this midpoint between solstice and equinox, we are at the very start of springtime. It’s a bit perplexing and yet highly sensible when you sit and ponder it, and perhaps it helps if we think of the spring season and compare it to one lunar cycle. At this halfway point between solstice and equinox, you might think of this start of spring as the time of the new moon, a faint sliver of moon emerging out of the dark of night. Reaching the equinox in March is like the full moon… the height of spring. And as we head past the equinox and toward the next cross quarter day in May (Beltane), with spring drawing to a close and passing away to summer, it is like the waning moon.

All of these things we celebrate these two days are related. Imbolc is the old celebration of the return of spring. With Imbolc, the earth goddess, ever changing, shifts once again from the old crone of winter to the young maiden of spring. The word is derived from the Gaelic oimelc (ewe’s milk) for as the milk begins to flow for newborn lambs at this time of year, so soon will frozen streams and rivers begin to melt and flow, and so soon will green––and warmth––return. The Church early on christianized the goddess and gave the day to St. Brigid (or Brigit, your choice, though Brigid, with its Celtic pronunciation (brigg-id or bree-id) is more proper). Brigid, a bridge from winter to spring. The night of St. Brigid’s Day brings Candlemas Eve. Candlemas is the day of blessing candles in the Church, forty days past Christmas. It is also known as Purification Day, which comes out of an old Jewish tradition: forty days after the birth of a son, mothers would go to the temple to be purified. And so the story goes that forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary went to the temple to be purified. You might think of it as renewal. Which brings us back again to the renewal of the goddess and Imbolc.

As for Groundhog Day, it is just one of many traditions that come out of Candlemas as a day for forecasting the weather. In our home, Candlemas will be the day we ceremoniously haul out the Christmas tree. We don’t typically leave it up this long, but our tree this year has been so beautiful, and it has been drinking water all this time, and Haden the Convivio Shop Cat has loved sleeping under it and running under its lower branches. The tree has, in its way, been instructing us to follow the old ways and so this year we have. Tomorrow night, though, we will bring it out and set it in its quiet corner of the garden where it will sit and rest until next winter solstice, when it will fuel our fire to once again drive the cold winter away and bring light to the darkness. Therein lies some powerful magic.

But now, light is returning. It is traditional for St. Brigid’s Day to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross out of rushes or reeds, as well as to leave an oat cake and butter on a windowsill in your home. This, to encourage Brigid to visit your home and bless all who live there. And so we welcome Brigid, and so we welcome spring, and so we welcome back the sun, we welcome back our dear friend.


Image:  Detail from “Polarlichter I,” a chromolithograph of the Northern Lights from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 6th ed., vol. 16, circa 1908. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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