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A Little Halloween Astronomy for Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

Published 10/27/22 at 6:23 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

A Little Halloween Astronomy for Oregon Coast, Washington Coast

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(Manzanita, Oregon) – It turns out there's more to Halloween than some spooky holiday-turned-commercial. There's a bit of science of the skies at work above the Oregon coast and Washington coast – something significant in astronomy. (Above: Neahkahnie Mountain at night, photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

Halloween happens on Monday, October 31, a day of ancient importance to at least one culture thousands of years old. But there's a technical reason for that.

“It is short for All Hallows’ Eve and is an astronomical event,” said Jim Todd, astronomy expert for Portland's OMSI. “It is the modern-day descendant of Samhain, a sacred festival of the ancient Celts and Druids in the British Isles. But it’s also a cross-quarter day, which is why Samhain occurred when it did. A cross-quarter day is a day midway between an equinox and a solstice.”

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It's a tradition that's almost as old as the British Isles, but this factoid goes back billions of years. That holiday occurs at the approximate midway point between the autumn and winter solstice. Yet it's only been fixed by tradition, Todd said. The true cross-quarter day comes on November 7, which creates a discrepancy of about one week.

“According to the ancient Celts, a cross-quarter day marks the beginning, not the middle, of a season,” Todd said.

Every year, the Oregon coast and Washington coast (as well as the rest of the globe) go through eight major subdivisions of each season. March and September each have equinoxes, June and December contain solstices, and there's the intervening four cross-quarter days.

“The four cross-quarter days are often called Groundhog Day (February 2), May Day (May 1), Lammas (August 1), and Halloween (October 31),” Todd said.

Of those cross-quarter days, Halloween is the spookiest, something that may have come about because this is when days begin to get substantially shorter.

“On Halloween, it’s said that the spirits of the dead wander from sunset until midnight,” Todd said. “After midnight on November 1, which we now call All Saints’ Day, the ghosts are said to go back to rest.”

In other, more tangible astronomy, if the skies get clearer along the Oregon coast or Washington coast, you could glimpse the annual Leonid meteor shower that peaks on November 17. It runs from November 6 through 30, but there is a full moon right around the peak, which will dampen the shooting stars' visibility.

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