The first day of fall, or the autumnal equinox, is September 22 in the Northern Hemisphere. On this day, the sun hovers above the equator, and most of the world enjoys nearly equal amounts of light and darkness. In traditional agricultural societies, the harvest season was drawing to a close, and people were working overtime to prepare stores for the winter months. The equinox was a time to relax, celebrate, and enjoy the bounty of the harvest, while they anticipated the scarcity or monotony of their winter diet.
In modern times, autumn is a time for new beginnings – a new school year, new clothes, new friends, a new outlook.
Why celebrate the first day of each season?
Family rituals, even simple ones like dinners together or quiet days spent as a family, offer kids a sense of predictability and allow families to:
- create a family identity
- share values
- make lifelong memories.
It’s not just kids who long for ritual; adults hunger for it too. And we don’t have to embrace established traditions. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes: “I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you’re craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”
Why not follow Gilbert’s lead and start some new family traditions? Celebrating the first day of each season is a great place to start. It provides the perfect opportunity to:
- Note the cyclical changes in the soil, sky, trees, plants, and wildlife.
- Reflect on the lessons each time of year imparts. Fall, for example, is a reminder of the cyclical nature of life and the inevitability of death.
- Learn about different celebrations around the world.
- Celebrate! Seasonal celebrations are affordable, nature-based, and as easy or elaborate as you want them to be.
- Meditate on the magic and mystery of living on Planet Earth.
- Be grateful for the gifts of food, family, and friendship.
How do cultures around the world celebrate the first day of fall?
Asian Moon Festivals
The Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese have been celebrating the equinox with Moon Festivals, or Mid-Autumn Festivals, for 3000 years. In China, families and friends gather to admire the mid-autumn harvest moon, light lanterns, burn incense, and plant trees. They prepare mooncakes – a noodle-like dough filled with bean or lotus seed paste and duck egg yolks or other fillings, which are then steamed, baked, or fried.
Japanese Autumnal Equinox Day
In Japan, the fall equinox is a national holiday. The seven days starting three days before the equinox until three days after is known as Higan. The Japanese spend Higan holding family reunions and visiting family graves, offering flowers, cleaning tombstones, burning incense, and praying. Ohagi, sticky rice covered with adzuki-bean paste or soybean flour, is a popular offering to the deceased.
Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday that falls on the first and second day of the month of Tishri on the Jewish calendar – usually between September 5 and October 5 on our calendar. This year it falls from sunset on September 18 to nightfall on September 20. Rosh Hashanah is the “day of judgment” in the Torah. Observors abstain from work and spend the day in the synagogue. A shofar (ram’s horn) is blown many times to waken listeners to the coming judgment. People reflect on mistakes made in the last year and plan changes for the new year. Many observers also practice Tashlikh, or “casting off” on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. They fill their pockets with pieces of bread, walk to a natural body of water, and empty the bread into the water, symbolically casting off the previous year’s sins. Apples or bread dipped in honey is common Rosh Hashanah fare.
Native American Harvest Ceremonies
Many tribes once celebrated the end of the harvest with equinox ceremonies. The Cherokee gave thanks to all living things at a Nuwati Egwa festival and the Chumash of southern California held a sun ceremony at the end of September. The Miwok in Northern California still celebrate the acorn harvest with a Big Time Festival on the last weekend of September. Traditionally, the Miwok relied on the acorn for food. In the fall, they harvested the fruits, cracked them, ground the meat into meal, rinsed the meal to remove its bitter tannins, and made acorn mush, bread, or soap. At modern Big Time festivals, Miwok and other California tribes perform traditional dances, play hand games, and tell stories.
Create some autumn traditions this year.
Pick activities that you’ll enjoy and want to do year after year. Here are some ideas:
- Establish a table-top, shelf, or mantel to display a seasonal tableau. On the first day of fall, replace the summer decorations with leaves, ornamental corn, gourds, jack-o-lanterns, acorns, pine cones, or whatever symbolizes fall in your family.
- Collect books about the seasons at yard sales, used-book stores, and thrift shops year-round. Choose a special basket or shelf for them, and change them out on the first day of each season. Or take a trip to the library a few days before your celebration. Some of my family’s favorite fall picture-books are: Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White; Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert; Autumn is for Apples by Michelle Knudsen; Apples and Pumpkins by Anne Rockwell; Fall is Not Easy by Marty Kelly; and It’s Fall! by Linda Glaser.
- Read aloud from The Autumn Equinox by Ellen Jackson.
- Make Chinese lanterns and hang them in the house or on the porch. Click here or here for a how-to.
- Visit a local orchard, pick apples, and make apple cider, sauce, or pie.
- Invite friends over for a harvest feast, prepared with foods from your garden or the farmer’s market. Traditional autumn foods include: pears, squash, pumpkin, apples, stews, and mulled ciders.
- Bring a pile of blankets out to the porch, yard, or park, cuddle together, and tell stories about your best or worst back-to-school memories.
- Go on a nature hike and enjoy the crisp air and colorful leaves.
- Day and night are equal, so it’s the perfect time to talk, as a family, about balance – the importance of it and ways to create more in your lives.
- After the sun sets, grab a pair of binoculars, cuddle under blankets, and star gaze. Taurus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Ursa Minor reappear in the night sky around the equinox.
Have you started any new family traditions lately? Are you going to celebrate the first day of fall this year? I’d love to hear about it!