(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 22, 2009. Your comments are welocme, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
This is the last of my series of articles on the solar calendar and the traditions associated with the solstices and equinoxes. See the previous articles for further astronomical information and the spring equinox.
The Algonquins of North America marked this season by giving the name of Harvest Moon to the full moon that comes closest to the equinox. Like the next month's Hunters Moon, the rise of the huge, red moon just after sunset is a remarkable event.
In China and other parts of Asia, the equinox is celebrated as the Moon Festival, a very ancient feast. Round Moon Cakes are an indispensable part of the holiday, as well as pomelos, which are supposed to resemble the full moon. This photo from Singapore features the moon goddess Chang'e. Some traditions also say there is a rabbit on the moon, pounding rice in a pestle to make the cakes. The Japanese borrowed the Moon Festival, known there as Tsukimi, when people gather outside for moon viewing parties. The traditional food offering in Japan is white rice dumplings. In Korea, the holiday is known as Chuseok
In ancient Persia, which was one of the few cultures of pre-Roman period to use a sun calendar, both equinoxes were important holidays and are still celebrated. The autumnal feast is called Mehregan. It originally celebrated the pre-Zoroastrian solar god Mehr, otherwise known as Mithra, but now it is a harvest festival. The month of September was named by the Persians for Mehr.
The ancient Israelites observed a week-long harvest festival called Sukkot, the feast of booths, around the time of the autumnal equinox, "the fifteenth day of the seventh month" counting from March. Sacrifices of the first fruits of the harvest were made at this time, as commanded in Deuteronomy 16.13 "Thou shalt keep the feast of tabernacles seven days, after that thou hast gathered in from thy threshing-floor and from thy winepress". Sukkot is still observed as a major holiday today.
According to Bede, the month of September was named Halegmonath, Holy Month, by the Anglo-Saxons in early England. In Old English, "hærfast" was the word for both harvest and autumn.
In medieval times, the Autumnal Equinox was celebrated as the Feast of St Michael the Archangel, or Michaelmas in English. This celebration undoubtedly replaced festivals sacred to one or more pre-Christian gods, but the identity of the gods is no longer known with any certainty. For some reason, the official date of Michaelmas is over a week later than the equinox, on September 29.
Michaelmas was one of the four Quarter Days when rents and taxes had to be paid. Payments that were made in grain were due at this time, and tenants often paid their rent in the form of a "stubble-goose," fattened by grazing on the grain remaining in the stubble of a harvested field. A goose was a traditional part of the feast for this day, and an old poem states:
Whoever eats goose on Michaelmas Day
Shall never lack money his debts to pay.
In some places influenced by Germanic custom it was the custom to plait a "corn dolly" out of the last harvested sheaf of grain ("corn" originally referred to the kernels of any grain). This was meant to guard the harvest, and it was plowed into the first furrow of the spring at sowing time. This may have represented the Corn Goddess, called Ceres in Latin. The corn dolly was sometimes called the Old Woman.
Today there are many autumn thanksgiving festivals throughout the world in celebration of the harvest, although they do not all take place around the time of the equinox. But the sentiment expressed in the hymn is universal:
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
Harvest Moon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Text_of_the_GNU_Free_Documentation_License
Cornwall grain harvest: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
Painting of Autumn is by Giuseppe Arcimboldo