It’s been a long winter and though the vernal equinox has passed, it’s not too late to burn your socks. What’s that, you say? You’ve never celebrated the vernal equinox? Well, you’re certainly behind the times. It traditionally occurs on March 21 each year and signals the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere (and fall in the Southern Hemisphere.) It’s all keyed to the Earth’s rotation which tilts at an angle of 23.5 degrees on its axis relative to the plane of orbit around the sun. This means that during the year, different places get sunlight for different amounts of time.
While “equinox” comes from the Latin for equal, sunlight didn’t get the memo. Because of atmospheric refraction, people at mid-temperate latitudes actually get a few extra minutes of daylight on the equinox. The fall and spring equinoxes, however, are the only two days during the year when the sun rises exactly due east and sets exactly due west.
Earth thinks it’s oh-so-special but it isn’t the only planet with an equinox. Saturn’s occurs about every 15 Earth years. The next one is on May 6, 2025, so you have plenty of time to plan a party. When Saturn’s equinox is viewed from Earth, the rings are seen edge-on and appear as a thin line, sometimes giving the illusion they disappeared. Weird.
What’s also weird is the belief that since day and night are nearly equal, equinoxes affect gravity and are the only days of the year you can balance raw eggs on end. Wrong. You can do that any day of the year, although why you’d want to is beyond me.
The vernal equinox is responsible for many beliefs of ancient people. Stonehenge’s design also includes a celestial observatory function, which allowed prediction of eclipses, solstices, equinoxes and other celestial events. On the vernal equinox, the druids and pagans celebrated the ancient Saxon goddess Eostre, who symbolized fertility and new beginnings.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia, was first a Hindu, and then a Buddhist temple complex. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century AD. The carved asuras (demons) and devas (deities) are intended to indicate the precession of the equinoxes and the slow transition from one astrological age to another. On the morning of the spring equinox, the sun rises up the side of the central tower of the temple to crown the pinnacle.
A Chinese legend involves the vernal equinox in a divine right to rule. In the year 1600 B.C., a woman named Chien-Ti received a special egg from a heavenly swallow. Although a virgin, she became pregnant, and her son Hsieh went on to found the Shang dynasty.
In the Middle Ages, reproduction of many plants and animals was often a mystery. Philosophers latched onto the idea of spontaneous generation where life sprung out of rotting or decaying flesh or matter. Mice, for instance, were supposed to come from sweaty underwear placed near husks of wheat in a dark place. (Note to self: Do laundry more often.) The vernal equinox was the most potent time for getting something from nothing. Petrus Alfonsi, a 12th century philosopher wrote:
“From this spring equinox (which is the beginning of spring), cold weather turns warm... Blood increases in the bodies of animals, and the diseases which come from blood return; natural lust bursts forth from its latent state, and all insects which are born from spontaneous generation now procreate.”
Now as to the sock burning…The old sweaty garment thing is still showing up, however not with mice. Every year, boaters in Annapolis, Md., burn their socks on the vernal equinox. The tradition began because sailors are forced to wear these “woolly prisons” on their feet all winter and enough was enough. Now the town website proudly proclaims since no self-respecting boater would wear them in the summertime, the dreaded socks “must be reduced to ash in a community bonfire.”
Not a bad tradition and even though the vernal equinox has passed, I think I’ll make a tidy bonfire on the front porch. It’s better than having mice spring from my underwear.
L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy adventures with humor, romance, and a touch of sass. She invited the neighbors over to burn their underwear with her, but instead they called the police.