The autumn equinox (September 22 for 2016) is a day that can easily pass us by without thought. The summer and winter solstices are more obvious and likely to be noticed. The spring and autumn equinoxes mark the midpoints between solstices and are the days when day and night, light and dark, are equal in length. In autumn, the journey into winter starts picking up speed. For all those hunters, herders, gatherers, and farmers from whom we all can trace our lineage, the yearly stream of seasons was about survival. The constant threat of starvation and death if man and nature did not produce enough food to make it through the approaching winter rooted our ancestors to the land and the whims of nature.
In the western hemisphere, we think of autumn holidays to be Halloween or Thanksgiving, but there are numerous fall holidays and customs celebrated in nearly every country and religion. Nearly all focus on the balance between life and death and the celebration of a good harvest. The ancient Greek story of Persephone directly identifies winter with death. In Greek mythology autumn begins as the goddess Persephone returns to the underworld to live with Hades. The story goes that Demeter was the goddess of grain and the harvest. Hades, god of the underworld, was attracted to Demeter’s daughter, Persephone . Hades stole Persephone and took her back to the underworld. Demeter grieved for her daughter so hard that all the crops perished and Zeus then commanded Demeter to reclaim Persephone so the world would not die. By the time Demeter had rescued her daughter, Hades has tricked Persephone into eating four pomegranate seeds, which meant she was doomed to spend four months of every year in the underworld since it was the rule of Fates that if one ate food in the underworld they were condemned to stay there. Each year, Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter for four months, these four months are the time when the earth dies.
Another autumn holiday that connects autumn with the dead is Higan, or O-Higan. Higan is a week-long Buddhist observance in Japan held during both the Autumn and Spring equinoxes. Before the Second World War, it was known as the “Festivals of the Imperial Ancestors”. After the war ended, the national holidays were renamed and they became simply spring and autumn equinoxes. Higan translates to the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the deceased reaching Nirvana after crossing over the river of existence. It celebrates the spiritual move from the world of suffering to the world of enlightenment and is a time for families to remember the dead by tending and decorating their graves, reciting prayers, and offering flowers and round food.In China, the Moon Festival is celebrated around the time of the autumn equinox. This festival dates back more than 3000 years and is held near the time of the full moon. It celebrates the bounty of the summer’s harvest. Mooncakes filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit are served. This is a time for families to get together, people will make long trips to be with their loved ones. The streets are decorated with colorful lanterns, fragrant incenses are burned and traditional fire dragon dances take place.
On the autumnal equinox many pagans of various traditions celebrate Mabon. Mabon celebrates the second harvest and the anticipation of winter. Mabon has many symbols including various types of gourds, corn, wheat, and melons. Cornstalks are tied together symbolizing the Harvest Lord, the Harvest Lord is burned as a sacrifice and its’ ashes are scattered. Mabon is often celebrated much in the same way as Thanksgiving with gatherings of friends and family for a great feast.
It is widely known that the Christian church replaced many ancient pagan celebrations with Christianized observances over the years. Michaelmas is held near the autumn equinox because it was associated with the beginning of fall and replaced traditional pagan observances of the equinox. Although celebrations of Michaelmas waned in the 1700’s in most places, some English counties still observe Michaelmas on September 29. Traditionally a meal featuring a goose, fattened on the remains of the harvested fields, is served along with large loaves of bread and bannocks.
These celebrations of harvest, of the delicate balance between life and death, should be yet another reminder that those of us on planet Earth are far more alike than different. Whether you call it Hell or the Underworld, Heaven or Nirvana, the similarities are far more distinct than the differences. Enjoy some beautiful fall colors, the great foods available this time of year, and keep a grateful heart that we, unlike our ancestors, can run to the supermarket in January when our supplies get low.