Autumn Equinox: The Science Behind the First Day of Fall

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iStock

On September 22, the Sun will shine directly over the equator—the midpoint of the Earth. (For 2018, this moment will happen at 9:54 p.m. ET.) The whole world will thus experience a day and night of equal length. In the Northern Hemisphere, we call this the autumn equinox. It marks the first day of fall. Around the world, people are marking the day with ceremonies, some of them ancient (and some less so).

You might be wondering two things: 1. Why on almost every other day of the year (the vernal equinox being the other exception) do different parts of the world have days and nights of differing length? 2. What do they call the day in the Southern Hemisphere?

A DAY AT THE BEACH

The answer to each of these questions resides in the Earth's axial tilt. The easiest way to imagine that tilt is to think about tanning on the beach. (Stay with me here.) If you lay on your stomach, your back gets blasted by the Sun. You don't wait 30 minutes then flop over and call it a day. Rather, as you tan, every once in a while, you shift positions a little. Maybe you lay a bit more on one side. Maybe you lift a shoulder, move a leg a little. Why? Because you want the Sun to shine directly on a different part of you. You want an even tan.

It might seem a little silly when you think about it. The Sun is a giant fusion reactor 93 million miles away. Solar radiation is hitting your entire back and arms and legs and so on whether or not you adjust your shoulder just so. But you adjust, and it really does improve your tan, and you know this instinctively.

People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
People light candles during the autumn equinox celebration at Neris River waterfront in Vilnius, Lithuania after sunset on September 21, 2013.
PETRAS MALUKAS, AFP/Getty Images

The Earth works a lot like that, except it's operating by physics, not instinct. If there were no tilt, only one line of latitude would ever receive the most direct blast of sunlight: the equator. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the planet would be bathed in sunlight, but it would only be the equator that would always get the most direct hit (and the darkest tan). But the Earth does have a tilt. Shove a pole through the planet with one end sticking out the North Pole and one end sticking out the South, and angle the whole thing by 23.5 degrees. That's the grade of Earth's tilt.

Now spin our little skewered Earth and place it in orbit around the Sun. At various points in the orbit, the Sun will shine directly on different latitudes. It will shine directly on the equator twice in a complete orbit—the fall and spring equinoxes—and at various points in the year, the most direct blast of sunlight will slide up or down. The highest latitude receiving direct sunlight is called the Tropic of Cancer. The lowest point is the Tropic of Capricorn. The poles, you will note, are snow white. They have, if you will, a terrible tan—and that's because they never receive solar radiation from a directly overhead Sun (even during the long polar summer, when the Sun never sinks below the horizon).

WHEN DO THE SEASONS CHANGE?

A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
A Maya priestess conducts an autumn equinox ceremony at El Salvador's Cihuatan Archeological Park.
Jose CABEZAS, AFP/Getty Images

The seasons have nothing to do with the Earth's distance from the Sun. Axial tilt is the reason for the seasons. The Sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer (66.5 degrees latitude in the Northern Hemisphere) on June 21 or 22. When that occurs, the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer solstice. The days grow long and hot. As the year elapses, the days slowly get shorter and cooler as summer gives way to autumn. On September 21 or 22, the Sun's direct light has reached the equator. Days and night reach parity, and because the Sun is hitting the whole world head-on, every latitude experiences this simultaneously.

On December 21 or 22, the Sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Southern Hemisphere, meaning the Northern Hemisphere is receiving the least sunlight it will get all year. The Northern Hemisphere is therefore in winter solstice. Our days are short and nights are long. Parity will again be reached on March 21 or 22, the vernal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere, and the whole process will repeat itself.

Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England.
Members of The Druid Order of London conduct a ceremony on Primrose Hill to celebrate the Autumn Equinox on September 22, 2008 in London, England. The Druid Order of London, which was founded in Oxford in 1245, has been conducting the Autumn Equinox ceremony on Primrose Hill since 1717.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Now reverse all of this for the Southern Hemisphere. When we're at autumnal equinox, they're at vernal equinox. Happy first day of spring, Southern Hemisphere!

And welcome to fall, Northern Hemisphere! Enjoy this long day of sunlight, because dark days are ahead. You'll get less and less light until the winter solstice, and the days will grow colder. Take solace, though, in knowing that the whole world is experiencing the very same thing. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to get ready to spend some time at the beach.

This story first ran in 2016.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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