Spring Faith 15 March 2014

The spring equinox, falling around the 21st March each year, is a significant date for many religions—Karen Willows explores how.

The post-Christmas period is great – a new year begins, the days begin to get longer, spring feels not so far away. It’s no accident that Christmas falls near the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Human beings have always observed and marked the annual journey of the sun through the year, and often this journey holds religious significance.

The upcoming spring equinox for example is a significant date for many religious calendars. The earth is tilted neither towards nor away from the sun on the day of the equinox, which means that the night and day are of equal length (hence the name – equinox means equal nights in Latin).  In Europe, it also marks the beginning of spring. The spring equinox can fall on any day between 19th and 22nd March, shifting slightly each year.

Nowruz in Paris

Nowruz celebrations in Paris.

Whereas the Gregorian calendar begins its new year near the winter solstice, many other calendars use the spring equinox. Chief amongst them is Zoroastrianism. Nowruz is one of the most significant dates in the calendar for Zoroastrians. Although there are only 130,000 or so Zoroastrians in the world today (though some estimates put the figure much higher), it remains one of the most influential religions in history. Nowruz also signifies the Persian new year and is celebrated in Iran and parts of Central Asia and South Asia, Zoroastrianism once being the dominant religion in these areas.

Nowruz is also used as the date of the new year in the Baha’i faith, and the spring equinox is used to calculate dates in the ancient Hindu calendar, which goes on to inform the new year in calendars across South Asia including the Indian National Calendar.
In Judaism too, the spring equinox informs the calculation of one of the most significant religious days in the Jewish calendar –  Passover. This day, which commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Israel, is described in the Torah as taking place in spring. As such, it is calculated as the first full moon after the spring equinox.

In Western Christianity, Easter is also informed by the spring equinox. Easter commemorates Jesus Christ’s resurrection in the Christian tradition, though for a number of reasons it is difficult to ascertain the exact date. In the end, the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE ruled that the Crucifixion took place on a Friday, near or after Passover, thus his resurrection then took place on a Sunday near or after Passover. As such, Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the equinox – this means Easter can fall on any day from the 22nd March to 25th April.

Religious calendars were often formed in close observation to the solstices and equinoxes of the year, as well as the lunar cycles which more closely reflect the seasons. Despite the rigid formality of modern industrial life, observing these calendars can encourage us to become more in-tune with the patterns of nature around us. They also remind us that in the end, we’re just tiny specks on a small planet, orbiting a huge ball of gas, in an unfathomably large cosmos.

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About Karen Willows

Karen Willows is a researcher and freelance journalist. She has a BA in Religion and Geography and an MA in Social Science Research.

all, Reflection, Zoroastrianism