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How Full Moons Got Their Strange Names

Joe Rao | Partner
Published: January 28, 2013

Harvest Moons

Harvest Moons

A close up of a full moon. iWitness/dentonhaves@yahoo@yahoo.com

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The first full moon of 2013 has already lit up the night sky (Jan. 26), but did you know it's a full moon of many names?

Full moon names date back to Native American tribes of a few hundred years ago who lived in what is now the northern and eastern United States. Those tribes kept track of the seasons by giving distinctive names to each recurring full moon. Their names were applied to the entire month in which each occurred.

There were some variations in the moon names, but, in general, the same ones were used throughout the Algonquin tribes from New England on west to Lake Superior. European settlers followed their own customs and created some of their own names. Since the lunar (or "synodic") month is roughly 29.5 days in length on average, the dates of the full moon shift from year to year.

Here is a listing of all of the full moon names, as well as the dates and times for 2013. Unless otherwise noted, all times are for the Eastern time zone:

Jan. 26, 11:38 p.m. EST — Full Wolf Moon: Amid the zero cold and deep snows of midwinter, the wolf packs howled hungrily outside Indian villages.  It was also known as the Old Moon or the Moon after Yule.  In some tribes this was the Full Snow Moon; most applied that name to the next moon. [Full Moon: Why Does It Happen? (Video)

Feb. 25, 3:26 p.m. EST — Full Snow Moon: Usually the heaviest snows fall in this month. Hunting becomes very difficult, and, hence, to some tribes this was the Full Hunger Moon.

March 27, 5:27 a.m. EDT — Full Worm Moon: In this month the ground softens and the earthworm casts reappear, inviting the return of the robins. The more northern tribes knew this as the Full Crow Moon, when the cawing of crows signals the end of winter, or the Full Crust Moon, because the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night. The Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation. [Phases of the Moon in 2013: A Lunar Calendar]

In 2013, this is also the Paschal Full Moon — the first full moon of the spring season. The first Sunday following the paschal moon is Easter Sunday, which indeed will be observed four days later on Sunday, March 31.

April 25, 3:57 p.m. EDT — Full Pink Moon: The grass pink or wild phlox is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring. Other names were the Full Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon and — among coastal tribes — the Full Fish Moon, when the shad come upstream to spawn. The moon will also undergo a very slight partial lunar eclipse, which will be visible from the Eastern Hemisphere, but not from North America. At its peak, less than 1.5 percent of the moon's diameter will be immersed in the Earth’s umbral shadow; a very underwhelming event to say the least.

May 25, 12:25 a.m. EDT — Full Flower Moon: Flowers are now abundant everywhere. It was also known as the Full Corn Planting Moon or the Milk Moon. The moon will also undergo a penumbral lunar eclipse, but the passage of the moon's disk into the Earth's shadow will result in one of the slightest eclipses of all, administering a mere touch of penumbral shadow at the northernmost part of the lunar limb.

June 23, 7:32 a.m. EDT — Full Strawberry Moon: Strawberry-picking season peaks during this month.  Europeans called this the Rose Moon. The moon will also arrive at perigee only 32 minutes earlier, at 7 a.m. EDT at a distance of 221,824 miles (356,991 kilometers) from Earth. So this is the biggest full moon of 2013. Very high ocean tides can be expected during the next two or three days, thanks to the coincidence of perigee with the full moon.

July 22, 2:16 p.m. EDT— Full Buck Moon: Named for when the new antlers of buck deer push out from their foreheads in coatings of velvety fur. It was also often called the Full Thunder Moon, thunderstorms now being most frequent. Sometimes it's also called the Full Hay Moon.

Aug. 20, 9:45 p.m. EDT — Full Sturgeon Moon: This large fish of the Great Lakes and other major bodies of water like Lake Champlain is most readily caught at this time. A few tribes knew it as the Full Red Moon, because when the moon rises it looks reddish through a sultry haze. It was also known as  the Green Corn Moon or Grain Moon.

Sept. 19, 7:13 a.m. EDT — Full Harvest Moon: Traditionally, this designation goes to the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal (fall) equinox. The Harvest Moon usually comes in September, but (on average) once or twice a decade it will fall in early October.  At the peak of the harvest, farmers can work into the night by the light of this moon.

Usually the moon rises an average of 50 minutes later each night, but for the few nights around the Harvest Moon, the moon seems to rise at nearly the same time each night: just 25 to 30 minutes later across the U.S., and only 10 to 20 minutes later for much of Canada and Europe. Corn, pumpkins, squash, beans and wild rice — the chief Indian staples — are now ready for gathering.

Oct. 18, 7:38 p.m. EDT — Full Hunters' Moon: With the leaves falling and the deer fattened, it's now time to hunt.  Since the fields have been reaped, hunters can ride over the stubble, and can more easily see the fox, as well as other animals, which can be caught for a thanksgiving banquet after the harvest.

A penumbral lunar eclipse will also take place. Perhaps for some minutes centered on the time of greatest eclipse (7:50 p.m. EDT) might the penumbra be marginally detectable over the moon’s southernmost limb; for at that moment the penumbral magnitude will reach 76.5 percent.  Those living across the eastern half of North America might see some evidence of this faint penumbral shading soon after local moonrise.

Nov. 17, 10:16 a.m. EST — Full Beaver Moon: At this point of the year, it's time to set beaver traps before the swamps freeze to ensure a supply of warm winter furs. Another interpretation suggests that the name Beaver Full Moon came from the fact that the beavers are now active in their preparation for winter. It's also called the Frosty Moon.

Dec. 17, 4:28 a.m. EST —  Full Cold Moon: On occasion, this moon was also called the Moon Before Yule. December is also the month the winter cold fastens its grip. Sometimes this moon is referred to as the Full Long Nights Moon and the term "Long Night" Moon is a very appropriate name because the nights are now indeed long and the moon is above the horizon a long time. This particular full moon makes its highest arc across the night sky because it's diametrically opposite to the low sun.

Editor's note: If you have an amazing picture of the full moon or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.

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