In the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox—the point after which the nights become longer than the days, as the North Pole tilts away from the sun—falls on September 23, 2023. Though Labor Day is seen as the end of summer, the autumnal equinox officially kicks off fall.
The darkening days and chilly weather are a bit melancholy, but that doesn’t stop people from celebrating. Here are six ways people honor the autumnal equinox around the world.
1. Feast on apples to celebrate the autumnal equinox.
In pagan mythology, the equinox is called Mabon, or Second Harvest. It’s a time to give thanks for the summer and to pay tribute to the coming darkness. It is also a time to prepare for Samhain (October 31–November 1), the larger Celtic festival that inspired Halloween. Some rituals for Mabon include building an altar with harvest fruits and vegetables, meditating on balance, gathering and feasting on apples, offering apples to the goddess, sharing food, and counting one’s blessings.
2. Visit your ancestors’ graves.
Japan marks the equinoxes—both of them—with a period called “Ohigan” (sometimes spelled O-higan). The Japanese Buddhist belief is that the land of the afterlife is due west, and during the equinoxes, the sun sets directly west. The equinoxes are also symbolic of the transitions of life. Ohigan is therefore a time to visit the graves of one's ancestors. People spruce up the grave sites and leave flowers for the dead. It is also a time of meditation and to visit living relatives.
3. Celebrate the autumnal equinox with moon cakes.
China and Vietnam celebrate the Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, which is on the full moon nearest the equinox. On a lunar calendar, it’s the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Parts of the celebrations include gazing at the moon and eating moon cakes; in the southern United States, Moon Pies are often used in place of moon cakes. A similar holiday in Korea is called “Chuseok.”
4. Eat nuts and a fattened goose.
Michaelmas is the Catholic feast of the Archangel Michael. Some traditions use this feast day to celebrate other archangels—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael—as the Feast of the Angels. The feast day is September 29; it’s thought the feast was set near the autumn equinox as a Christian version of previous pagan celebrations. In England, it was a time of transitions, as servants were paid their wages after the harvest, and workers scrambled to find new employment contracts. The employment fairs that facilitated this custom became an opportunity for community celebration.
Traditions include gathering and eating nuts (which began on Holy Rood Day on September 14), and eating a fattened goose, if you could afford that luxury.
5. Visit Stonehenge on the autumnal equinox.
Neo-Druids and other pagans gather at Stonehenge to watch the sunrise on the autumnal equinox. This happens every year, both in spring and fall. The equinoxes, as well as the solstices, are the few times the public can get up-close-and-personal with the stones.
6. Watch a shadowy snake appear at a Maya temple on the autumnal equinox.
According to legend, a feathered serpent deity named Kukulcan visits the Maya city of Chichen Itza every equinox. On both the vernal and autumnal equinox, crowds gather to watch as a snake-like shadow slides down the god’s namesake pyramid.
A version of this story was originally published in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.