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Religious Tolerance logo

About the Spring Equinox

Overview, timing, & history

Chichen-Itza 1

Chichen Itza (a.k.a. Kukulcan temple) in the state of Yucatán, Mexico,
where many observers assemble to watch the spring equinox each year.

It might appear above as if the monument is issuing white smoke in the
shape of a demon with horns. It is really white fluffy clouds passing by!

Overview:

Religious folks around the world observe many seasonal days of celebration during March and April. Most are religious holy days, and are linked in some way to the spring equinox (a.k.a. vernal equinox) in the Northern hemisphere, the autum equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. On that day, the daytime and nighttime hours are approximately equal -- each being very close to 12 hours long. The word "equinox" comes from Latin and means "equal night."

Christianity and other religions associate three themes with the vernal equinox:

bullet Conception and pregnancy leading to birth six months later at the time of the winter solstice. The Bible appears to contain internal evidence that Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus Christ) was born in the Fall of the year. However, some suggest that the early Christians set Yeshua's birthday, Christmas, at the approximate time of the winter solstice in order to match existing Pagan celebrations. That would have placed his conception about nine months earlier, near the time of the spring equinox.

bulletVictory of a god of light (or life, rebirth, resurrection) over the powers of darkness (death).

bulletThe descent of the goddess or god into the underworld for a period of three days. This is such a popular theme among religions that mythologists refer to it as "the harrowing of Hell." 2

In the case of Christianity, the Apostle's Creed contains two of these themes. It states, in part, that Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) was:

"... crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead;"

People view other religions in various ways, and thus treat the celebrations of other faiths differently:

bulletSome people value the worldwide variety of March and April celebrations, because they demonstrate the diversity of religious belief within our common humanity. They respect both their own religious traditions and those of other faiths for their ability to inspire people to lead more ethical and fulfilled lives. Religious diversity is, to them, a positive influence.

bullet Others reject the importance of all celebrations other than the holy days recognized by their own specific religion. Some go so far as rejecting some of their religion's own holy days when they are discovered to have Pagan origins (e.g. Easter and Christmas).

bulletSome consider religions other than their own as being inspired by Satan. Thus the equinox celebrations of other religions are viewed as Satanic in origin, and intrinsically evil.

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When and why the vernal equinox happens:

The seasons of the year are caused by the 23.5º tilt of the Earth's axis. Because the Earth is rotating like a top or gyroscope, it points in a fixed direction. Its North Pole points towards a location in space near the North Star. 7 Its South Pole points to an area of the sky that does not have any bright stars. But the star Sigma Octantis, a faint star, is reasonably close and often called the South Star.

However, the Earth is also revolving around the sun. As shown in the left side of the image below:

  • During December, the Southern Hemisphere receives more direct rays from the Sun. It is thus hotter there; they are experiencing Summer. Meanwhile the sunshine in the Northern Hemisphere is less direct direct and is colder; they are experiencing Winter.

As shown in the right side of the image below:

  • DurIng June, the reverse is true.

solar system showing earth seasons 8

At noontime in the Northern Hemisphere the sun appears high in the sky during summertime and low in the sky during winter. The time of the year when the sun reaches its maximum elevation occurs on the day with the greatest number of daylight hours. This is called the summer solstice, and is typically JUN-21 -- the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The lowest elevation occurs about DEC-21 and is the winter solstice -- the first day of winter, when the night time hours are maximum. Almost exactly half-way between the two solstices is the time of the vernal or spring equinox. It is one of two times during the year when the daytime and nighttime are almost exactly 12 hours long, and very close to being equal to each other. 

The date and time of the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere:

The exact date and time of the vernal equinox, when the sun moves into the astrological sign of Aries, varies from year to year. Each year, the date/time moves progressively later in March until the year before leap-year is reached. On leap-year, it returns to an earlier date/time, as on 2008. The four-year cycle is then repeated. 

Between the years 1500 CE and 2500 CE, the earliest spring equinox will be on 2496-MAR-19 at 12:28 Universal Time (UT). The latest equinox was on 1503-MAR-21 at 8:42 UT.

Year Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere (UTC)
1999 MAR-21 @ 01:46
2000 MAR-20 @ 07:35
2001 MAR-20 @ 13:30
2002 MAR-20 @ 19:16
2003 MAR-21 @ 01:00
2004 MAR-20 @ 06:48
2005 MAR-20 @ 12:33
2006 MAR-20 @ 18:26
2007 MAR-21 @ 00:07
2008 MAR-20 @ 05:48
2009 MAR-20 @ 11:44
2010 MAR-20 @ 17.32
2011 MAR-20 @ 23:21
2012 MAR-20 @ 05:15
2013 MAR-20 @ 11:02
2014 MAR-20 @ 16:57
2015 MAR-20 @ 22:45
2016 MAR-20 @ 04:30
2017 MAR-20 @ 10:29
2018 MAR-20 @ 16:15
2019 MAR-20 @ 21:59
2020 MAR-20 @ 03:50

The dates and times from 1999 to 2004 were derived from the astronomical calculations on The Dome of the Sky web site. 3 The data after from 2004 to 2011 was taken from ArchaeoAstronomy.com 4 Data on and after 2012 was taken from https://www.timeanddate.com/ Sources often differ by a minute or so. An online "Easy Date Converter" calculates the dates and times of the equinoxes and solstices within 20 seconds. 5 Times are in UT (Universal Time). This used to be called Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. In North America, you can find your local time by subtracting:

bullet2 hours 30 minutes for Newfoundland daylight standard time (DST)
bullet3 hours for Atlantic daylight standard time
bullet4 hours for Eastern daylight standard time
bullet5 hours for Central daylight standard time
bullet6 hours for Mountain daylight standard time
bullet7 hours for Pacific daylight standard time
bullet8 hours for Alaskan daylight standard time
bullet 10 hours for Hawaiian time (Paradise does not observe daylight savings time)

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Brief history of the spring equinox:

The early Romans used a lunar calendar in which months alternated between 29 and 30 days. It was not a precise measure; it gradually fell out of step with the seasons. Julius Caesar reformed the calendar by switching its base from lunar to solar. The day on which the vernal equinox occurred was defined as MAR-25. The length of the year was fixed at 365 days, with an additional leap-year day added every fourth year. This made the average length of a year equal to 365.25 days, which was fairly close to the actual length of the year: 365.2422 days.

The annual error of 0.0078 days accumulated over time until it became too large to manage. A second reform of the calendar was ordered by Pope Gregory XIII. Under the new system, the Gregorian Calendar, 1582-MAR-21 CE became the date of the vernal equinox, the year 1582 was shortened by ten days. This caused riots in some places because some people believed that the Pope had shortened their lives by ten days. Some future centennial years (1600, 1700...2000) were/are not considered leap years unless they were evenly divisible by 400. 6

The Gregorian Calendar continues in general usage today. Eventually, its 0.0003 day annual error will accumulate and necessitate an elimination of a leap-year day circa 4915 CE, if the Earth still exist and humans haven't blown each other up by then, in the names of their multiple Gods. That is a big "if."

References:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Image supplied free by StockFreeImages.™ It shows a Mesoamerican Step pyramid that was built of limestone by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries CE. According to Wikipedia: "During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes off the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest balustrade, creating the illusion of a feathered serpent 'crawling' down the pyramid."
  2. "Gwyl Canol Gwenwynol (Spring Eqinox) page," at: http://www.tylwythteg.com/
  3. "Find the equinoxes and solstices for a particular year," at  http://einstein.stcloudstate.edu/ 
  4. "Equinox, Solstice & Cross-Quarter Moments," at: http://www.archaeoastronomy.com/
  5. "Dates and Times of Equinoxes and Solstices," Hermetic Systems, at: http://www.hermetic.ch/
  6. J.G. Walshe, et al., "Dates and meanings of religious and other festivals," Foulsham, (1997).
  7. Actually, the Earth's axis is wobbling slightly. The axis does not point to a fixed place in space, but traces out a circle among the stars once every 25,765 years. Thus, over an interval of many millennia, various stars become the "north star."
  8. Image copied from the Astroplot website at: http://www.astroplot.com/ Used by permission.

Copyright © 2000 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-FEB-23
Latest update and review: 2017-MAR-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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