The Lemon Yellow Rays of Spring: Equinox Traditions

Diane Garcia, Children's Librarian, Los Feliz Branch Library,
hand tinted bird photo
"Sunny and 75 degrees." Seen in the photograph is a bird perched on a tree branch enjoying the warm Valley weather, [1963]. Photo credit: Jeff Goldwater, Valley Times Collection

The hills of Los Angeles blossom in spring. This time of year can make traffic a bit more pleasant as the sun squeezes its lemon-yellow rays onto the mint colored hillsides of our metropolis. In the northern hemisphere, the March equinox marks the beginning of spring. The spring equinox is also called the vernal equinox. Vernal means fresh, new and “of or in spring.” The word equinox comes from the Latin words aequus and nox. Aequus means equal. Nox means night. It happens twice a year when the sun is exactly above the equator and on these days Earth has equal amounts of light and shadow.

The equinox shifts between the 19 and 21 of March, and is responsible for the creation of the Gregorian calendar. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII was determined to stop the drifting dates of the equinox that occurred on the Julian calendar so that Easter would always be observed after this important celestial event. Over the centuries the Gregorian calendar has become the international standard.

Cultures around the world celebrate the vernal equinox. In Japan, it is known as Shunbun no Hi and has been a national holiday since 1948. It is part of a seven-day festival called Haru no Higan. Many in Japan celebrate the holiday by visiting graves of their ancestors.

Nowruz means “new day” and is the first day of the Iranian New Year. The vernal equinox marks day one of the 13-day festival. One of the most important traditions is setting a Haft-sin table with 7 objects that start with the letter “s.” Other objects can be added to the table, including a mirror to represent reflection and a decorated egg to represent new beginnings.

The Pyramid of Kukulan in the ancient city of Chichen Itza, Mexico was built between 800 and 900 A.D. Every equinox a shadow of a snake emerges on the steps of the pyramid. For five hours the snake crawls down the steps until it connects to the stone feathered serpent head sculpture at the bottom of the pyramid.

While no one knows for sure, Saint Patrick’s Day could be a mix of holidays commemorating both the vernal equinox and the patron saint of Ireland. Celtic practices and Christian religion merged for hundreds of years before Saint Patrick’s Day became an Irish holiday, and since they occurred around the same time, it's possible that the pre-Christian Spring Equinox festival morphed into the other celebration.

poppy covered hills

The poppy-covered hills of Lake Elsinore, CA. Photo credit: Clare Connolly

So, enjoy the cascades of color as they swirl over our landscape and relish the sunshine of the season.

Further Reading

The Spring Equinox: Celebrating the Greening of the Earth
Jackson, Ellen B.

Exploring the Night Sky: The Equinox Astronomy Guide for Beginners
Dickinson, Terence

A Season of Flowers
Garland, Michael

A Year With Nature: An Almanac
Crump, Martha L.

Color Me Floral: Stunning Monochromatic Arrangements for Every Season
Underwood, Kiana

Heaven and Earth in Ancient Mexico: Astronomy and Seasonal Cycles in the Codex Borgia
Milbrath, Susan