History of Fall: What is the Autumnal Equinox?


This time of year represented New Year’s Day, according to the French Republican Calendar. However, since that calendar was only in use from 1793 to 1805, following the fall of the French monarchy in 1792, very few still celebrate this day.


Instead, September 22 or 23 marks the beginning of Fall or Autumn following the Equinox. This word is made up of two Latin root words aequus and nox meaning “equal night” referring to the fact that day light and night time are equal in duration.

This year, the astronomical autumnal equinox (Fall) occurs on September 22 at 20:02 UTC. This means Temps Universel Coordonne, or Coordinated Universal Time if you don’t speak French, roughly equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time if you’re British, Zulu Time if you’re a pilot. The Vernal Equinox occurs 6 months later. Since each equinox occurs at the same time whether in the northern hemisphere or the southern hemisphere, though the seasons are reversed, it is becoming common to call the (northern) vernal equinox the March Equinox and the Autumnal Equinox the September Equinox, thereby avoiding that annoying Northern Hemisphere bias.


It used to be that September was the time of the return of students to school, following harvest time. Indeed, during Charlemagne’s calendar September was called “harvest month,” the Anglo-Saxons called it Gerstmonath or barley month referring to its harvest, and the Swiss call it Herbstmonat or “harvest month.” Meteorologically, Fall begins September 1. But over the years due to a confluence of influences including in part truancy, sunspot activity, cosmic ray interference, and standardized testing, many students now return to classrooms in August — completely ruining the song “See You In September” — currently the end of Summer is announced following the Labor Day holiday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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