Dark Sky Park: Cross-Quarter Days

Oct 24, 2013

IPR: We are one month into the season of Autumn but already we've experienced a blast of winter this week. How do the seasonal quarters relate to what's happening? 

MARY: During the last week of October each year we approach the point in the seasonal cycle that is referred to as "cross-quarter." This is the mid-point in the season which marks the halfway point between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice. 

There is a cross-quarter day in each season though some are lesser known. The cross-quarter day from Winter Solstice to Vernal Equinox falls around February 2nd and is the time we know as Groundhog Day.

The cross quarter day from Vernal Equinox to Summer Solstice is May 1st and is typically referred to as "May Day".

From Summer Solstice to Autumn Equinox the cross-quarter day is around August 1st and it bears the name Lammas from the words "loaf mass," which is a reference to bread made from the first wheat harvest.

Then from Autumn Equinox to Winter Solstice we have the cross-quarter day of November 1st which is referred to as All Hallow'ds Day for all things sacred or holy.

IPR: Are these just quirks of the calendar or is there some larger mystery operating in these cross quarter days?

MARY: Certainly the way we observe these points in time belong to our own doing but the solstice and equinox points describe a real relationship between the Sun and the Earth throughout the year. And there are some really fascinating cultural traditions related to the beginning of each season and then to its mid-point. These derive from a time when Nature was regarded as a living being with which humanity could, and should, engage as something we have a participatory relationship with. The seasonal conditions of weather and temperature were not happenstance but were a direct encounter between what humanity had to offer to Natura and how Natura received what was offered.

And tucked into these seasonal traditions there is the enchanting role of mischief.

IPR: How so?

MARY: Well, the February Cross-Quarter Day inaugurated the season of returning light and at this time the carnival (which we typically know of as Mardi Gras) was celebrated, the May Cross-Quarter Day was a celebration of the onset of seasonal fertility and, just prior to May Day, there was the Walpurgis Night or the night of the witches. The August Cross Quarter Day observed the onset of the season of the harvest and is referred to as the time of the first fruits when the first wheat harvest was gathered and ground into flour, the first loaf then taken and offered at the church or sacred place as blessing for the remaining harvest; and then November 1st, the cross-quarter day known as All Hallow'ds Day, which inaugurates the season for honoring and celebrating the sacred dead. We know the night before as All Hallow'd Eve, or Halloween, and it is full of mischief and merrymaking, as the eve of each cross-quarter day seems to be.

You could say that, at least with All Hallow'd Eve, the mischief seems related to the fear or squeamishness associated with the seasonal tradition of celebrating the dead. 

In contemporary culture, October marks the time of year, in 1959 specifically, when humanity first saw images of the far side of the Moon, and we are approaching a hybrid solar eclipse this year, so all of this conspires to continually make this an interesting, enchanting season of mystery.