This morning the radio announcer notes that it is September 1, autumn is around the corner, and invites us to stay tuned in all seasons. Yesterday I stood on a friend’s balcony during a cool rain shower, looked at trees just beginning to take on fall color, and thought about the coming season. It is late summer. In the evening the cicadas make a persistent trill from the trees, and darkness closes in a bit earlier every night.
Much of the earliest religious practice humans indulged in was aimed at ensuring seasonal change. Demeter and her daughter Kore—transformed into Persephone, the ‘bringer of death,’ after her underworld episode—are as ancient as any deity we know. Even before there was a Zeus, there was a Demeter, and it seems obvious that to early humans, tracking the orderly flow of the seasons was more important than any Olympian hierarchy.
Dumuzi, Adonis, Attis and many other ancient gods and demigods died and were resurrected in spring or summer rituals, making sure that one season of abundance would follow on another, that the gods would never leave us to starve in a world without sun, without life-giving water, without warmth—what the Norse would come to think of as Fimbulwinter, three years of unbroken severe winter that would precede Ragnarök, the end of the world. In time, humans have learned one important lesson: the seasons are going to change, one following on another, and you can’t stop them.
Most people who have lived where there are four defined seasons do not want to live where there are not. They may long to get away to Florida for a while in the depth of winter, but not to live there all year round. We don’t necessarily like the extremes, even if we do like the four seasons. And what we love most of all are the transitions.
Some climatologists and meteorologists don’t recognize spring and autumn, speaking only of winter and summer, with the other seasons being just transitions between them. And as I’ve noted before in this blog, when you ask people to name a favorite season, spring and autumn are the most popular, with autumn edging out spring in the contest, and summer and winter running far behind. When pressed for further definition most people will tell you something about the wonderful feeling of the first cool days after a long summer, or the first warm days after the cold of winter. It is the change we like, the transition from one thing to another.
We are restless beings. How else did small bands of early hunter-gatherers come to populate the entire globe? We are hungry for change. Summer may be nice, with its pools and barbecues, outdoor concerts and Shakespeare in the Park, pretty girls in sandals and sundresses, but after a while the heat is too much, we’re weary of living in air conditioning, we’ve harvested all the tomatoes and peppers we can eat, stew, can or foist on neighbors, and it’s time for a change.
Human societies worldwide have cherished the autumn for a long, long time. Of course there is its aspect as representing an end of life. In the old symbolic systems in Chinese painting, autumn scenes, especially birds flying away over bare trees, evoke death.
Maybe it’s our desire to fight this that there are more celebrations, traditions, and events in autumn than any other season. While the two major winter events, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, may eclipse any autumn festival for size or glamour, they pale against the sheer number of autumn’s special days. The beginning of school, of sports seasons, hunting seasons, theater seasons, symphony seasons, homecoming games, harvest festivals, Halloween, Thanksgiving, the list goes on and on, to the point that it’s surprising how much we get up to in the autumn—all against a backdrop of glorious, multicolored trees.
So bring on the autumn. Let’s dust off the football, carve the pumpkin, dig out Mom’s old recipe for cranberry relish, get our sweaters and coats dry-cleaned, plan our annual autumn color tour, check our seasons tickets for this, that, and the other. There may not be any ancient rituals aimed at bringing on the autumn, but in modern times, few seasons surpass it for traditional observances.