On a fine day this past week, my wife and I celebrated the official end of summer, better known as the autumnal equinox. Most people are aware that the earth experiences winter and summer solstices, and spring and fall equinoxes, but I would hazard a guess that there are very few people that could explain to you what solstices and equinoxes are, other than the fact that they are those days in the year when daylight hours equal nighttime hours (equinoxes), or we have the most or the least hours of daylight (solstices) on a given day.
I had the good fortune to take an astronomy course during my university years, so I understand the scientific explanation a little better than most folks. I think that we all know that the earth rotates around its north and south pole axis once every twenty-four hours. We also know that the earth rotates around the sun every 365 days or so. What most people may not know is that as the earth revolves around the sun, it does so while its polar axis is tilted at an angle of approximately 23.4 degrees with respect to the plane of its rotation around the sun, known as the ecliptic. Because of this tilt, during the winter solstice, the north pole and most of the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun, and so receive fewer hours of daylight. During the summer solstice, the north pole is tilted towards the sun, and so the northern hemisphere receives more hours of daylight. This is the science behind why we experience winter, spring, summer and fall seasons.
Our ancestors may not have known of the scientific basis for the seasons, but much of their lives revolved around this procession of seasons, so they attached great importance to these known cosmic events, often endowing them with ritualistic and religious significance. Almost all ancient civilizations and societies celebrated the solstices and equinoxes as the most important and special days of the yearly calendar. Many of these formerly pagan celebrations eventually morphed into more recognizable Christian holidays such as Christmas.
Ukrainian traditions are rich with such celebrations. For instance, since time immemorial, Ukrainians have celebrated the festival of Kupala on the summer solstice. It originated as a fertility ritual in pagan times, but with the advent of Christianity in Ukraine, it was transformed into a holy day in honour of John the Baptist, and was renamed as Ivana (John) Kupala. Even so, Ukrainians continued to incorporate the ancient symbolic pagan rituals in their celebrations, lighting huge bonfires, having young couples jump hand in hand over the flames, and seeing young single girls make and float garlands of flowers with lit candles in the rivers and lakes.
The autumnal equinox in Ukraine primarily represented the end of the harvesting season and the beginning of a period of welcome rest from the grueling demands of subsistence agriculture. By the time the equinox arrived, the last of the most important crops, namely the potato, had been harvested and stored. The grains, fruits and vegetables had been gathered and appropriately processed by the end of August. The only crop still remaining in the ground was usually the beets, particularly the sugar beets which were not dug up until October.
Of course, in our modern urban society, autumn has a very different meaning and spurs a different set of activities. Whereas our peasant ancestors toiled hard during the summer and rested in the fall and winter, we tend to take our vacations and rest in the summer and return to our regular labours in the fall. If we are young, we return to another eight months of school. For us, fall means the start of a new working year, whereas for our Ukrainian forebears, fall meant the end of the working year.
As the first-generation descendant of Ukrainian immigrants, I have a proverbial foot in both worlds. I am still harvesting the produce from my modest back yard garden, enjoying the last of my late ripening tomatoes. My garlic crop, harvested back at the end of August is safely drying, hanging from the rafters inside my garage. My small bounty of wild grapes overhanging my back deck are just about ready for picking and being transformed into juice or jelly. Next week, I will be visiting my brother and helping him with his grape harvest and wine-making. Last, but not least, I am also eagerly awaiting the annual October trek to the cottage and the hunt for wild mushrooms in the forests of northern Ontario.
I have inherited my ancestors love for the autumn season and am grateful I am still around to enjoy this one.