Spring equinox 2017: All the facts about the first day of spring

Cameron Macphail

A guide to what the spring equinox means and how you can make the most of it.

When did spring start then?

The astronomical spring in the Northern Hemisphere began on Monday, March 20 and will end on Wednesday, June 21.

The spring (vernal) equinox in the Northern Hemisphere is also known as the March equinox. It's called the "autumnal (fall) equinox" in the Southern Hemisphere.

The March equinox marks the moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s equator – from south to north. This happens on March 19, 20 or 21 every year.

Japanese cherry blossom... a sure sign of spring Credit: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images 

Why is it called the spring equinox'?

Since night and day are nearly exactly the same length – 12 hours – all over the world the event is called the equinox, which in Latin, literally means 'equal night' (equi – equal, and nox – night).

In reality though, equinoxes do not have exactly 12 hours of daylight. Solstices and equinoxes mark key stages in the astronomical cycle of the earth. In a year there are two equinoxes (spring and autumn) and two solstices (summer and winter).

The dates of the equinoxes and solstices aren't fixed due to the Earth's elliptical orbit of the sun. The Earth's orbit around the sun means that in early January, the sun is closest (known as perihelion) and in early July it is most distant (aphelion).

We use the equinox to mark the change of seasons, as the balance of light shifts to make for longer days or nights. It usually means that it's time to hunker down for colder seasons, or time to rise and shine for warmer ones.

You may also notice that on the equinox, the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west, whereas at other times in the year, it appears off-centre if you're facing those directions.

What happens on an equinox?

The Earth's axis always tilts at an angle of about 23.5° in relation to the ecliptic, i.e the imaginary plane created by the Earth's orbit around the Sun. On any other day of the year, either the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Hemisphere tilts a little towards the Sun but on the two equinoxes, the tilt of the Earth's axis is perpendicular to the Sun's rays.

The equinox happens at exactly the same time around the world

The equinox occurs at the exact moment the Sun crosses the celestial equator – the imaginary line in the sky above the Earth’s Equator – from south to north. At this moment, the Earth's axis is neither tilted away from nor towards the Sun. In 2017, this happens at 10.20am UTC (GMT).

Google Doodle

The first day of spring 2017 sees the latest in a series of Google Doodles.

Spring google doodle

After all, what better way is there to mark the beginning of the season than with nature springing back to life?

Google's vernal equinox Doodle in 2016 Credit: Google
Google's vernal equinox Doodle in 2015 Credit: Google

Celebrating new Beginnings  

The March equinox has long been celebrated as a time of rebirth in the Northern Hemisphere. Many cultures celebrate spring festivals and holidays around the March equinox, like Easter and Passover.

There are few sunnier sights than a field full of nodding narcissus Credit: Jo Whitworth

Japan's cherry blossom

In Japan, as spring approaches, the arrival of cherry blossom (Sakura) is hotly anticipated as the nation turning a shade of pink with the arrival.

Months before they arrive, retailers switch into sakura mode, Danielle Demetriou writes.

The nation turns a shade of pink with the arrival of cherry blossom

The countdown excitement is heightened further by the televised Cherry Blossom Forecast which offers a petal-by-petal analysis of the advance of the blooms – known as the cherry blossom front – as they sweep from the south to the north of the archipelago.

Holi Festival

The Hindu Holi Festival of Colours, as it is celebrated in India... Credit: EPA

The colourful Hindu festival of Holi is celebrated as the vernal equinox approaches.

The ancient religious festival has become popular across the world, including celebrations across the UK, though it is mainly observed in India and Nepal.

... versus the UK version: The London Holi One Festival, where revellers throw brightly coloured clouds of powder into the air – and over each other Credit: PA

The celebrations begin with a bonfire the previous evening where revellers sing and dance.

The following day involves participants throwing colour over each other, either with dry powder and water or coloured water-filled balloons.

The festival signifies the victory of good over evil with the onset of spring and the end of winter.

Spring break

Easter also has associations with the Spring break enjoyed by college students in the US, and has connotations of beach holidays and raucous parties.

The 2012 film Spring Breakers starring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and James Franco takes this to an extreme as it follows James Franco’s gangster rapper as he takes four bikini-clad young women on a tour of Florida.

Spring Breakers stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens

The Easter Bunny

Rabbits and hares have been associated with spring since ancient times.

It is thought that the Ango-Saxon Goddess of Spring, Eostre, had a hare as her companion, which symbolised fertility and rebirth.

It’s hardly surprising that rabbits and hares have become associated with fertility as they are both prolific breeders and give birth to large litters in early spring.

The legend of the Easter Bunny is thought to have originated among German Lutherans, where the ‘Easter Hare’ judged whether children had been good or bad in the run-up to Easter.

A German Happy Easter postcard from 1903 

Over time it has become incorporated into Christian celebrations and became popular in Britain during the 19th century.

Many children believe that the Easter Bunny lays and hides baskets of coloured eggs, sweets and sometimes toys in their homes or around the garden the night before Easter Sunday – much like Father Christmas delivering gifts on Christmas Eve.

This has given rise to the tradition of the Easter egg hunt which is still popular among children today.

Traditional Easter foods from around the world

Spring Lamb recipes

Jose Pizarro's roast rack of lamb with braised peas and lemon-thyme salsa.

A Spanish roast with a spring-like twist of lemony herb relish and warmed peas

Spring lamb recipe
Angela Hartnett's lamb sweetbreads with crispy lamb breast and ricotta

Caramelised sweetbreads contrast with fresh ricotta and a minty, citrus salad.

Credit: Lisa Lander
Scott Hallsworth's tea-smoked BBQ lamb chops

Plump lamb chops cured in garlic, ginger and chilli are smoked over green tea and wood chips before grilling. Delicious with a spicy Korean miso.

Tea smoked BBQ lamb chop recipe
Rose Prince's lamb steak with broad beans, shallots and mint​

A simple and quick dish of pan-fried lamb teamed with warm broad beans and fresh mint.

Lamb steak with broad beans shallot and mint
Martin Morales' Peruvian lamb braised in beer

A rich and vibrant stew of chunky lamb with red peppers and coriander.

Peruvian lamb braised in beer
Michel Roux Jr's roast saddle of lamb stuffed with spinach and garlic

A beautiful stuffed roast saddle, served with a saffron jus.

Roast saddle of lamb recipe

 

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