A guest post by Editor B.
This past equinox marks the seventh year running that I’ve come in to my daughter’s school to talk to her class about the cycle of seasons.
I started in 2012, when my daughter was in Pre-K. She and most of her classmates were four years old then. I’ve come in for every equinox and solstice since. Now my daughter is ten years old and in fifth grade. I’ve given some version of this presentation 25 times now, and these kids have grown up before my eyes.
There have been some changes over the years, and also some persistent themes.
I started off by reading picture books. I found a series of books by Ellen Jackson, one for each solstice and equinox. Then I found a very similar series by Wendy Pfeffer. Both sets of books have their strengths and weaknesses, but as far as I know, there’s nothing else on the market that fills this role. They do the job, as far as I’m concerned: they explain the concept of seasonal change, the science of why it happens, and how these changes have been observed and celebrated by various human cultures around the world for thousands of years.
By the time my daughter got to fourth grade, I felt the kids were getting too old for the books. I devised a multimedia presentation for each of the four moments. You can see an example here: http://bit.ly/equinoxautumn However, it is not really designed to stand on its own. It needs a live human narrator. It’s much the same story as in the books, but told in my own way.
In addition to reading books or making presentations, I liven up each visit with a demonstration, with activities, and with treats.
I begin with the idea that it’s a special time, a good time to take stock and notice what’s going n in the natural world all around us. At the autumnal equinox, for example, we talk about leaves turning color, fruits ripening, and the wonderful bloom of Lycoris radiata. We look to the animals, and note that their fur may be thickening. Squirrels may be gathering acorns. Birds are migrating southward. The Saints have returned to the Superdome. Believe me, they’re animals! Did I mention I live in New Orleans? The weather may not have cooled yet, but the days are definitely getting darker.
The science demo is essentially the same every time. I do it right in the middle of my story, after introducing the idea of seasonal changes, and raising the question of what causes these changes. I’ve repeated it so many times now, for children and adults, that I think I could do it in my sleep. The basic idea was suggested in the books themselves, and I’ve adapted it freely.
I light a candle to represent the Sun, and I use an orange or other roundish fruit to represent the Earth. To begin, I review how the Earth rotates on its axis, creating the appearance of the sun rising and setting. For plenty of younger kids, this alone can be a challenging notion to grasp, and grownups sometimes appreciate the refresher. To drive home the point, I use toothpicks or skewers or some kind of rod to make the axis visible.
I also point out that we live in the northern hemisphere. I use a marker to draw the equator on the rind of the orange, and I make a mark to show our approximate location. To young children who know they live in the American South, learning about the Global North takes a little unpacking.
Then I show how the Earth goes around the Sun over the course of the year. In fact, that’s the very definition of a year.
Here’s the crucial part: if the Earth’s axis was just straight up and down, with regard to the Sun, we wouldn’t have seasons as we know them. In fact, the axis is tilted.
As I move the Earth around the Sun, maintaining the same angle of tilt, I talk about solstices and equinoxes and seasons. When our half of the Earth is tilted toward the Sun, we get more hours of daylight, and more direct rays of sunlight, and we call that summer. When we are tilted away, the reverse is true, and we call that winter. About halfway between, there’s that moment when day and night are roughly equal, when we aren’t tilted at all with regard to the Sun, and that’s the equinox.
The bit about the directness of the Sun’s rays isn’t so clear with a candle, so sometimes I bring a flashlight. I’ve even been known to use the light on my phone. By shining a beam on the fruit or on the wall, it’s easier to see how light coming at an angle is more diffuse and less powerful.
As the children have gotten older, I’ve started throwing in more advanced concepts for “extra credit.” For the autumnal equinox, for example, I talk about the Earth’s equatorial plane passing through the center of the Sun.
It’s my hope, after seeing me give this demonstration so many times, that at least some of the kids might eventually remember how this works. The origin of the seasons is one of the most widely misunderstood basic science concepts.
After the science demonstration, we talk about how these seasonal moments have been celebrated in diverse cultures. I talk about megalithic alignments, which give evidence that humans have been observing these moments for a very long time indeed. For the autumnal equinox, I’ll mention harvest festivals in general as well as celebrations which are more or less explicitly tied to the equinox. I touch on Sukkot, Pongal, the New Yam Festival of the Igbo, Lammas, Samhain, Halloween, All Saints, Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival, Higan, Chuseok, Mehrgān, the French Revolutionary New Year, and of course Neo-Pagan celebrations.
Then we do a little celebrating ourselves. I usually have an activity for the kids. For the autumnal equinox, I’ll talk about how gratitude is a common theme in many harvest celebrations, and I’ll invite the children to think on something for which they are grateful. I aim to emphasize the contemplative aspect of this exercise, to really hold that feeling in their hearts, to notice what if feels like. Then everyone writes down what they’re thinking on a slip of paper, and I assemble them in a gratitude chain. It makes our good fortunate abundantly manifest.
I also like to supply a treat. I used to make mini-muffins for the equinox, which I frosted half-chocolate and half-vanilla, to symbolize the balance of light and darkness around this time. In recent years, I’ve made something smaller and simpler, fusing together two chocolate ships, one white and one dark.
My presentation is easily adapted as we move through the season. The science demonstration remains the essentially the same, but I vary the activities and treats.
For the winter solstice, we talk about the encroaching darkness, the cooler weather, and that mysterious substance known as “snow.” We talk about bare branches and evergreens, root veggies, hibernation of bears and bats and snakes, and the brumation of reptiles. I touch on Dōngzhì, Yaldā Night, Inti Raymi, Makar Sankranti, Hanukkah, Christmas, St. Lucia’s Day, Neo-Pagans Yule, Junkanoo, and Burning the Clocks in Brighton, England. We talk about customs such as wreaths and evergreen decor, the Tannenbaum, lighting candles and colored electric bulbs, the Celebration in the Oaks (a staple at New Orleans City Park), bonfires, Japanese yuzu baths, various traditional foods, and labyrinth walking. I invite the children to sing along with a “Solstice Carol” I’ve written, and I bake gingerbread solstice stars.
For the vernal equinox, we talk about new growth emerging, flowers and pollen, animals waking up from hibernation, birds flying north for the summer, the increase in daylight hours and the return of warm weather. I discuss Mid-March holidays like Pi Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and St. Joseph’s Day, as well as more or less explicitly equinox-connected festivals such as Nowruz, Holi, the gathering at Chichen Itza, Maslenitsa, Passover, Eostre, Easter, and Ostara. We talk about various traditions including the Persian Sabzeh, brightly-colored clothes, and colored eggs. We find our center of balance in a body-based contemplative exercise, and I provide fresh blackberries for a treat.
I usually come in on the last day of school, weeks before the summer solstice, and remind them to look forward to this special moment in the latter half of June. We discuss the brighter, warmer, stormier days ahead, including the onset of hurricane season. We also talk about green leaves, chlorophyll, flowers, reproduction, and agricultural abundance. The bug population is exploding at this time of year. Baby birds probably hatched in the spring, but they are still juvenile in early summer, and many other animals have young in the early summer, following on the increase in plant and insect numbers. I introduce the concept of photoperiodicity. Did you know the growth of deer antlers is triggered by changes in our number of daylight hours? I talk about Stonehenge, and monuments all over the world, as well as Geshi, Xiàzhì, the Feast of St. John the Baptist in Christian tradition as well as Louisiana Voodoo, Swedish Midsommar, Neo-Pagan Litha, and also Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. I discuss customs such as maypoles, parades (with a special nod to Santa Barbara, California), bonfires and fire leaping, fireworks, and cold noodles. I’ve been known to bake summer solstice sugar cookies, painted with sun symbols, but I’ve also brought in sliced starfruit or Japanese flower candy.
This enterprise is not without pitfalls. One year, a teacher took issue with my characterization of Hanukkah as a solstice celebration. I was perhaps a little too cavalier with lumping all these traditions together. (Further reading: Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice) Her offense was slight, but I took it seriously. Many Christians don’t see Christmas as a solstice celebration either. Since then I have taken pains to get my facts straight, and to differentiate between explicit and implicit connections, and just to be more sensitive.
The whole endeavor takes a bit of effort, but it’s been very gratifying. To me, it is an act of devotion to Mother Earth. It is, I suppose, a sort of ministry. If I fire a tiny spark of passion for nature or science or culture or art, even in just one child’s heart, then I will have been amply compensated for my time and energy. But in truth, sharing the wonder and joy of what it means to be alive here on this planet is all the reward I need.
I always try to leave time at the end of my presentations for questions. In that spirit, I’m happy to answer questions from anyone who reads this post.