The first day of spring isn’t some random day in March when you suddenly notice that the daylight has taken on a more luminous hue and some semblance of colour has crept back into the trees. Springtime begins on a specific day, at a specific time and it’s called the spring (or vernal) equinox. But did you know that every year this precise time changes ever so slightly? For example, in 2023 the spring equinox will take place six hours later than in 2022.
When is the spring or vernal equinox and what is it?
Monday, 20th March 2023 at precisely 10:24pm GMT
At this exact moment, the sun is positioned so that day and night are technically equal. Indeed, the word ‘equinox’ derives from two Latin words, ‘aequus’ which means ‘equal’, and ‘nox’ meaning ‘night’. The same balance of day and night also occurs during the autumn equinox, exactly six months later.
Is that the same as the solstice?
No. The solstice, like the equinox, occurs twice annually, but these are defined by the shortest day around the 21st December and the longest day around the 21st June. So, an equinox will always be three months away from either the winter or summer solstice.
Six facts about the spring (or vernal) equinox?
1. The meteorological calendar says that spring begins on the 1st March
This is correct, but meteorological (or climatological) seasons are divided into three-month periods - spring, summer, autumn and winter - based on the expected temperatures for each season, whereas the astrological version that dictates the equinox is based on the relative positions of the sun and Earth.
2. The ratio of light to dark is not equally split on the day of the spring equinox
It’s logical to assume that, during the equinox, days and night will have exactly the same amount of light and dark. However, because of the earth’s atmosphere, the sun will appear to be above the horizon when it’s still technically below it, compromising the perfect balance of light and dark.
3. The date of the equinox can change annually
If the Earth took exactly 365 days to go around the sun, the equinox would fall on the same day, at the same time, every year. However, it takes the Earth about 365.25 days to go around the Sun, which is why the Gregorian Calendar compensates for the excess with a leap year every four years. The next leap year is 2024.
4. The days begin to get longer
As opposed to the autumn equinox when the days start to get shorter. And by the way, ‘vernal’ is just a fancy way of saying spring. The word has been used in English since the 16th century and derives from the Latin noun ‘vernālis’ meaning, ‘as of or occurring in spring’.
5. The spring equinox means that the clocks will change soon afterwards
The clocks will go forward on Sunday, March 26 2023 at 1:00am.
6. The spring equinox causes large river waves
Tidal bores, common to seas and vast lakes, are relatively uncommon in rivers, aside from during the equinox. They are caused by tidal waves that have been pulled by gravity as a result of moon-derived activity during both the spring and autumn equinox. These waves rush against the flow of coastal rivers and estuaries resulting in powerful waves.
Which religions celebrate the spring equinox?
Zoroastrian: In Iran the spring equinox is also the New Year
For over 3,000 years the Persians have celebrated Nowruz (new day) which marks the beginning of the new year, and it lands on the same day as the spring equinox. These ancient celebrations derive from Zoroastrianism, a religion that was superseded by Islam in the 7th century, but Nowruz prevailed and is marked annually with feasting and dancing.
Judaism: Purim is celebrated between 19th and 21 March
Celebrations take place in this period to commemorate the Jews being saved from persecution in the ancient Persian Empire. Purim is acknowledged with traditional foods such as Hamentaschen, triangular cookies filled with jam, and savoury filled dumplings called Kreplach. Everything is, of course, washed down with voluminous quantities of wine.
Hinduism: The spring equinox is celebrated in India with Holi
Holi derives from an ancient Hindu legend in which Krishna lovingly asks Rhada to paint him any colour she desires. Festivities begin the night before the equinox with fires and dancing, before the main event of throwing powered paint and water balloons to all and sundry. This includes Sikhs, Jains and nonbelievers because, in Holi, everyone is welcome.
Buddhism: Japan’s Shunbun No Hi is a quiet affair
The Japanese have a different way of seeing the vernal equinox, as it coincides with Shunbun no Hi. Formally a Shinto holiday called Shunki Koreisai, this former version of Shunbun No Hi was connected to the worship of the imperial family and to commemorate the ancestors of one’s own family. In Shinto, it’s believed Buddha appears in the equinox when day and night are of equal length to help guide souls to the afterlife, and Shunki Koreisai is the exact middle day of a seven-day Buddhist holiday celebration called Haru no Higan. After World War II, Shunki Koreisai was changed to Shunbun no Hi and is focused on celebrating nature rather than the worship of the imperial family. But the day is still marked by families visiting the graves of their loved ones and leaving gifts for their ancestors.