Saturday at 5:37 a.m. marked the spring (or, more properly, “vernal”) equinox this year. Traditionally, we call the equinox the first day of spring, but that designation belies reality.
We determine the birth of spring with our senses. Warm weather returns. The snows of winter turn to rain. The world is reborn in a flurry of new life.
In reality, the weather has alternated between warm and cool for weeks. The crocuses began to bloom weeks ago.
At higher altitudes, a major snowstorm or two will blanket the mountains with ice and snow.
Even in the flatlands of Ohio, winter weather can stretch into April. I recall one snowy April morning a few years back. As I slowly skidded my way toward Ohio State, I found myself singing to the tune of “White Christmas,” “I’m dreaming of a white Easter, just like the ones way up in Nome.”
Spring it is, and spring it isn’t.
In fact, all the spring equinox really means is that an astronomical event has occurred.
Our ancient forebears noticed that the sun moves across the sky in a complete circle, called the ecliptic, once a year. In fact, we divide circles into 360 degrees to mimic approximately the number of days in a year.
On the vernal equinox, the sun’s path crosses another imaginary circle in the sky called the celestial equator, which corresponds to Earth’s equator projected on the sky. Old Sol is moving north as it crosses the line. That moment happened at 5:37 a.m. Saturday. Astronomically defined, the equinox is not a day. It’s a moment.
However, on that day, daylight and nighttime are roughly equal throughout the Northern Hemisphere and, come to think of it, throughout the world. “Equinox” is derived from a Latin word that means “equal night.”
We, of course, live north of Earth’s equator. As the sun moves north, it rises higher in our sky. The higher it gets, the more directly its rays beam down on our part of the planet.
Winter is the coldest season because the sun shines down on us from a lower angle. Spring is warmer because the sun’s rays shine most directly down on us. On the summer solstice in June, the sun is almost directly overhead at local noon and beats down upon our heads with exceptional fervor.
Because the sun rises higher in the sky, it spends more and more time above the horizon each day as the season progresses. On Saturday, day and night were about equal in length. The day after, daylight was a few minutes longer than night, and the next day, daylight was longer still.
The daylight time has been getting longer since the shortest day of the year, which generally happens around Dec. 21. Why don’t we get warmer weather starting in January?
The sun is only one factor in the meteorological equation. Local atmospheric conditions on Earth also play a large part. For one thing, the atmosphere takes months to heat up properly to create warmer weather. The nights are still longer than the days until the equinox.
Add atmospheric characteristics like the jet stream, which sometimes drags cold arctic air into our neighborhood. The result is meteorological chaos.
As a result, the “first day of spring” doesn’t really exist.
Nevertheless, humans are a tidy bunch, so we feel like we have to pick a date. The day of the vernal equinox is as good as any, I suppose.
Also, humans are fond of our spring celebrations, and we have to have a calendar date to base them on.
In the United States, the main springtime celebrations are the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter.
This year, the Jewish lunar calendar’s intricacies determine that Passover 2021 begins on the evening of Saturday, March 27, and ends on the evening of Sunday, April 4. Easter Sunday, the holiest of Christian holidays, occurs on April 1. Next year, Passover is celebrated from April 15-22. Easter occurs on April 17.
When we look at them objectively, those celebrations can get pretty strange looking.
Why do the holiest of Christian and Jewish holidays bounce around the calendar? Why do small children search for eggs and worship a large rodent?
Our calendar difficulties arise because of fundamental astronomical mismatches among our methods of determining time. The lunar cycle (i.e., the month) does not divide evenly into the year, the orbit of Earth around the sun. For heaven’s sake, the length of a day doesn’t divide evenly into either the lunar cycle or the year. We must do the best we can with what God and/or nature gave us.
In fact, we can blame our holiday oddities on the moon. The date of Easter hearkens back to the Jewish Passover (or, more correctly, Pesach) celebration. They are both connected with the moon, which grows and then shrinks over the course of about a month. For one day each month, the moon disappears and then is reborn as a thin crescent.
In cultures around the world, the death and rebirth of the moon symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth that is necessary if we and our nurturing planet are to be renewed.
The Jewish calendar is based on the moon and not the sun as our modern Gregorian calendar is. The number of lunar cycles in a year does not divide evenly into the solar year, so the Passover celebration begins on a different day each year. Generally speaking, Passover began on the evening of the first full moon after the spring equinox.
During the early days of Christianity, no one knew exactly when to celebrate Easter. To settle the matter, Constantine, the Christian Emperor of Rome, convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The council decreed that Easter would happen every year on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. If the full moon happened on a Sunday, then Easter would be celebrated on the following Sunday. The council also ruled that Easter had to occur after the beginning of Passover.
Roman Catholic and Protestant churches eventually abandoned the Passover rule, even though the Christian Bible makes it apparent that Jesus died and was reborn during Passover. The eastern churches did not, which is why the Eastern Orthodox Church sometimes doesn’t celebrate Easter on the same Sunday as other Christian churches.
The moon also figures into the Anglo-American habit of celebrating Easter through the distribution of eggs to children.
When the early Catholic Church began to spread its religious beliefs in England, they realized that they could make their religion more palatable by incorporating some practices of the indigenous religions.
In those days, the English worshiped many gods. Among them was Ostara — Eostre to the Romans — the goddess of springtime. She made the warm weather come, and the world burst forth with new life.
Near the first day of spring, when her powers were at their greatest, Eostre gathered little children around her and performed feats of magic. One fine spring day, as the children sat before her, a beautiful songbird landed on her outstretched finger. To the astonishment of the children, she transformed the bird into a rabbit.
The children squealed with delight until they saw that the rabbit was weeping — and with good reason. It had been a bird that could fly high above the clouds, safe from all harm. Now it was a rabbit, earthbound, prey to all the animals that love to eat bunnies for breakfast.
The children begged Eostre to change the rabbit back into a bird, but this she could not do. Instead, on the first day of spring, when her powers are at their greatest, she can transform the bunny back to a bird for a single day. On that day, the bird lays her eggs.
The next day, the bird must become a bunny again. However, she remembers the children who took pity on her. On that day, she delivers her eggs to all the children of the world.
On all other days, the rabbit lives on the moon, where she may still soar high above the clouds, safe from harm. If you look at the dark markings on the full moon, you can see the rabbit’s outline to this very day.
And that is why, on the highest day of the Christian calendar, Eostre’s Bunny still delivers her eggs to the descendants of the children who took pity on her so long ago. If your family is like mine, you’ll almost surely find a few remnants of Eostre worship hanging around in your refrigerator.
But our springtime obsession with eggs and bunnies goes far deeper than that.
The egg is, after all, a symbol of new life. Out of it, as if by magic, springs a brand-new (and adorable) living, moving, breathing entity.
As for bunnies, they embody, shall we say, the passionate procreative proclivity of springtime. Get yourself a mating pair, and before you know it, you’ll be knee-deep in bunnies.
It seems an odd way to celebrate the death and rebirth of a Savior, but there it is.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.