The first day of spring will occur on Sunday, March 20, 2022, at 11:33 a.m. EDT for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, which is marked by the arrival of the Vernal (Spring) Equinox.
Regardless of what the weather is doing outside, the equinox marks the official start of the spring season.
What Does Vernal Equinox Mean?
Vernal translates to “new” and “fresh,” and equinox derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night).
So what does that mean? Essentially, our hours of daylight—the period of time each day between sunrise and sunset—have been growing slightly longer each day since the winter solstice in December, which is the shortest day of the year (at least in terms of light).
Even though we know that after December 21st, the days start getting steadily longer, we still see more darkness than light over the course of a day in those three months leading up to spring. The vernal equinox marks the turning point when daylight begins to win out over darkness.
At this moment, the direct rays of the Sun are shining down on the equator producing the effect of equal day and night (give or take a few minutes, see below). After the vernal equinox, the direct rays of the Sun migrate north of the Equator (with hours of daylight steadily growing longer) until they finally arrive at the Tropic of the Cancer (latitude 23.5 degrees north).
The migration of the Sun’s direct rays comes to a halt on that day; this is as far north as they will go. We call this the summer solstice (solstice is a suspension of the migration of the Sun’s direct rays). It is the longest day of the year in terms of hours of daylight.
After the summer solstice, the direct rays proceed to head south and the days begin to grow shorter. It will take another three months, until the autumnal equinox for the periods of daylight and darkness to reach equilibrium once again.
The rays ultimately reach the Tropic of Capricorn (latitude 23.5 degrees south) on the day of the winter solstice and the whole cycle begins again!
Length of Day vs. Night
A question revolving around the vernal equinox concerns the length of day versus night. We have been taught that on the first days of spring and autumn, the day and night are equal to exactly 12 hours all over the world.
Yet, if you check the calendar pages in our Almanac, you will find that this is not so. In fact, our tables tell you that on the days of the spring and fall equinox, the length of daylight is actually longer than darkness by several minutes.
The reason this happens can be attributed to our atmosphere. If Earth was a planet that did not have an atmosphere, then yes, on the equinox days the length of the day and night would be exactly even.
However, our atmosphere acts like a lens and refracts (bends) its light above the edge of the horizon. Put in another way, when you watch the Sun either coming up above the horizon at sunrise, or going down below the horizon at sunset, you are looking at an illusion — the Sun is not really there, but already below the horizon.
As a result, we actually end up seeing the Sun for a few minutes before its disc actually rises and for a few minutes after it has actually set. Thus, thanks to atmospheric refraction, the length of daylight on any given day is increased by approximately six or seven minutes.
Are the seasons getting shorter?
The current seasonal lengths for the Northern Hemisphere are (approximately):
- Summer — 93.641 days
- Autumn — 89.834 days
- Winter — 88.994 days
- Spring — 92.771 days
As you can see, the warm seasons, spring and summer, combined are 7.584 days longer than the colder seasons, fall and winter (good news for warm weather admirers!).
However, spring is currently being reduced by approximately one minute per year and winter by about one-half a minute per year. Summer is gaining the minute lost from spring, and autumn is gaining the half a minute lost from winter.
Winter is the shortest astronomical season, and with its seasonal duration continuing to decrease, it is expected to attain its minimum value — 88.71 days — by about the year 3500.
Interesting Spiritual and Cultural Facts about the Spring Equinox
In Mexico, in the ruins of the Mayan city Chichén Itzá, crowds gather at the ancient El Castillo pyramid every spring and fall equinox to witness an equinox celebration that dates back to the construction of the pyramid around 1,000 A.D. The Maya were skilled astronomers, and the pyramid is dedicated to the feathered serpent god, Quetzalcoatl. At sunset on the equinoxes, the angle of the sun creates shadows that look like a giant snake. The light-and-shadow snake appears to slither down the pyramid steps until it merges with the huge, sculpted serpent’s head at the bottom.
Full Moon in March
We all know that spring is a time of renewal and new growth. From the first crocuses and snowdrops emerging to the daffodils and tulips, the new season is what the spring equinox is all about. March showers may bring April flowers, but they also bring worms up and out of the soil. Earthworms typically spend the winter buried deep below the frost line, but the annual spring showers reduce the oxygen in the soil and cause them to make their way up to the surface. That’s why the first full moon in the month of March is known as the Worm Moon.
Mysterious tradition involving eggs
Why, a day of magic, of course. Folklore claims that special magnetic or energetic changes on the day of the vernal equinox make it possible to stand a raw egg on its end. As cool as this sounds, it’s a myth. You can balance some raw eggs on their end, but you could do it any time of year.
According to the Washington Post, this egg story may stem from Chinese Lunar New Year traditions that have their roots in the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China for nearly six centuries. Legend has it that on the vernal equinox in the year 1,600 B.C., a woman named Chien-Ti received a special egg from a heavenly swallow. In a story that bears similarities to Jesus’s birth in Christianity, the virgin Chien-Ti became pregnant. Her child, Hsieh, went on to find the Shang dynasty, and the tale is how the family explained its divine right to rule.
The date of Easter and its relation to the spring equinox
Unlike Christmas or Independence Day, the exact date of Easter changes from year to year. Deciding what day Easter will fall on is a matter of great importance to Christian churches because it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s so important, according to Panos Antsaklis, PhD, a professor at Notre Dame University, that in the 4th century A.D., a group of Christian leaders came together to officially decide how to calculate Easter’s date. Their decision: Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
The Persian New Year
The Persian New Year celebration known as Nowruz kicks off at the vernal equinox and lasts for 13 days. On the night of the equinox, Iranian families gather for a holiday meal and count down to the first stroke of their new year with a cheer of “Eide Shoma Mobarak,” or “Happy New Year!” The holiday table, called the haft seen, is decorated with seven ceremonial items: an apple representing beauty, vinegar for patience, hyacinth for spring, a sweet pudding for fertility, sprouts representing rebirth, and coins for prosperity.