In 2019, the autumnal equinox occurs September 23, when the sun will cross the equator and head towards its lowest point of the year in December (Northern Hemisphere). On that date, the sun will rise exactly in the east, shine for 12 hours, and set exactly in the west. Everywhere on earth will experience close to 12 hours of light and 12 of darkness. Exact times vary from place to place due to light refraction and other factors. This is the date on which the sun enters the sign of Libra, the balance, an appropriate symbol of this astronomical event. Because the earth wobbles a bit on its axis, the date of the equinox varies slightly from year to year.
Fall is the time of harvest, and in Europe, the equinox was a period of celebration known as Harvest Home. Numerous megaliths and tombs, such as Stonehenge, built in prehistoric times, were organized around the solstices and equinoxes. However, much technological knowledge was lost over the eons, and in the middle ages, since most peasants weren’t able to do astronomical calculations, the date of the festival was set to September 25, which the Church named Michaelmas. Various traditions sprang up in different countries. Modern misconceptions aside, there is no evidence that human sacrifice was ever a part of Harvest Home traditions. But there were many mock sacrifices involving effigies of various sorts.
Probably the best known of the effigies was a large wicker figure of a man, in England called John Barleycorn. Based on mythologies in which the the god of night conquers the god of day, John Barleycorn represented the spirit of the fields/summer/light, which was believed to reside in the last sheaf cut. When the harvest was done, the wicker figure was burned in symbolic sacrifice amidst great rejoicing. Everyone knew that they had not seen the last of him, because, if all went according to natural plan, he would return in the spring. The traditions of making “corn dollies”, little figures made of wheat or barley, is closely related. The Harvest Queen, or Kern Baby, is made and bundled by the reapers who proclaim, ‘We have the Kern!’ The sheaf is dressed in a white and decorated with colorful ribbons depicting spring, and then hung upon a pole (a phallic fertility symbol). In Scotland, the last sheaf of harvest is called the Maiden, and must be cut by the youngest female in attendance.
Other historic symbols of the season include apples, gourds and melons, and cider, beer, and wine. Sometimes a loaf of bread, shaped as or marked with a wheat sheaf, is baked using the last of the harvested grain.
In the rhythm of the seasons, putting up the harvest led to a time of rest and plenty, before the onset of winter. It was a time for beginning new leases, resolving accounts and paying the annual dues.