Folklorist and artist Fez Inkwright teaches us how to celebrate the autumn equinox in style!
What exactly is the equinox?
With a lot of focus on the summer and winter solstices—the longest and shortest days of the year, respectively—it’s easy to forget about the equinoxes. The solar year is typically divided into four, meaning that between each solstice is an equinox, marking the point at which the sun rises and sets on either the northern or southern side of the equator. Commonly, this day heralds in the changing of the season—and here in the northern hemisphere, we see summer turning to autumn.
How is the equinox celebrated around the world?
In the Irish Celtic calendar, the autumn equinox sees in the festival of mabon, where deities are thanked for the harvest and food is shared throughout the community. It is a time to meditate on the balance of life and the blessings the year has brought. Similarly, the seven-day higan festival is observed in Japan to reflect on life and remember the deceased. Japanese Buddhist belief is that the land of the afterlife exists in the west, and as the sun sets exactly in this direction at the equinoxes, this is the ideal time to remember those who are no longer with us. The name o-Higan refers to the ‘other shore’ that is reached after crossing the Sanzu River in the west.
In ancient Rome, the equinox would mark the beginning of a festival dedicated to Pomona, a goddess of abundance. Not far away in Greece, this was the time of the year that Persephone returned to the Underworld to live at Hades’ side, beginning the long months of winter as her mother Demeter grieved for her absence.
Wherever in the world it is celebrated—and at whichever time of year, depending on the hemisphere that you live in—the autumn equinox is a time for reflection on the ending year, gratitude for the abundances life brings us, and preparing for the darker months ahead.
The autumn equinox tells us it’s time to prepare our herbs for the winter months ahead…
I don’t know about you, but autumn is my favourite season. The days are a little cooler, the leaves are turning, and there’s nothing quite like sitting beneath an oak tree listening to the tok tok tok of acorns falling through the branches. If you grow your own produce at home, it’s also a great satisfaction to be harvesting and preserving everything, ready to enjoy throughout the winter.
You don’t have to have a large garden—or a garden at all!—to enjoy making supplies for the winter. Many herbs can be grown inside in a south- or west-facing window, and you can even let them enjoy the summer in pots outside, and then move them indoors before the first frosts. If you don’t have space to grow fruits and vegetables, local farmers markets and plant sales can provide local, sustainable produce.
How to dry your herbs
Now is the time to air-dry loose bundles of herbs by hanging them in a cool spot out of direct sunlight, turning them once a day until they’re dry and can be stored in jars.
Once dried, use in cooking, or chop roughly and sew into loose-woven cotton teabags for a winter pick-me-up. My favourite is hyssop and mint: hyssop has a faintly floral, minty flavour, and used to be an ingredient of absinthe. Most importantly, it grows well throughout the year, even in winter, and tastes wonderful both fresh and dried.
Another great plant to use for teas is myrtle: its spicy flavour is reminiscent of allspice and oranges, and was once fashionable among older French women who believed that it would restore their youth. In Somerset it is supposed that myrtles flourish best in a household full of pride and self-respect; and growing one well is thought to bring good fortune!
Herbs with a high moisture content such as basil, chives, and mint can be frozen at any time of year; just be sure to pick them mid-morning, after any dew has evaporated, and before the afternoon sun has started to wilt them.
Making herbal syrups
Another great use for your favourite herbs and other botanicals is creating syrups, which can be added to drinks, baking, your breakfast, or many other uses.
Boil hardier parts such as roots, berries, or barks on a low heat until soft, then add any desired leaves and flowers and steep for ten minutes. Strain the water from the plants and discard the solids, then add equal amounts honey (or your preferred honey alternative, like agave nectar or maple syrup) to water and heat at a low temperature until thick.
Herbal boozy tipples
If you’re intending to make a boozy mix to see off any encroaching winter colds, add one part brandy to three parts syrup—a sure cure for any illness that might come your way!
Personally, I love lavender syrup (great for summer cocktails—add blackberries or lemon to the syrup for a fruity twist), mint (to brighten up lemonade, or whipped into cream for desserts), or peach and lemon verbena, which is wonderful over a simple sponge cake.
As for myself, I’ve just finished making a batch of spiced apple and blackberry gin for the season. Chop equal amounts of apples and blackberries, then mix with a litre of gin, 200g sugar, and spices to taste—I threw in a couple of bay leaves and some cinnamon. Shake it daily until the sugar is dissolved and two weeks later you’ll have a delicious seasonal drink!
Remember to reflect
Whatever kitchen magic you decide to get up to, this time of seasonal change is the perfect opportunity to think back on the year that is coming to a close. What blessings have come to you, what abundances fill your garden, or your life?
Take some time out of a busy schedule to spend a few contemplative hours in the kitchen making some unique teas or syrups that will bring a bit of sunshine back into your life.
Thanks for reading! You can learn SO MUCH MORE about the folklore and medicinal uses of plants and herbs in Fez’s book Folk Magic and Healing! It’s available from all good bookstores or from our webshop (we ship worldwide).
And – coming soon! – you can enjoy a bit of “true crime meets folklore” in Folk Magic’s darker sister book, Botanical Curses and Poisons, publishing in January 2021 and open for pre-order now!