Wolf Moon: the first Full Moon of the year5 min read
Originally written on January 2021, updated 2023
“The sunset embers smolder low,
The Moon climbs o’er the hill,
The peaks have caught the alpenglow,
The robin’s song is still.”
–John L. Stoddard (1850–1931)
In ancient times, it was common to track the changing seasons by following the lunar month rather than the solar year, which the 12 months in our modern calendar are based on.
For millennia, people across Europe, as well as Native American tribes, named in fact the months after features they associated with the Northern Hemisphere seasons, and still today we use many of these ancient month names as Full Moon names. A common explanation is that Colonial Americans adopted many of the Native American names and incorporated them into the modern calendar. However, it seems that it is a combination of Native American, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic month names which gave birth to the names commonly used for the Full Moon today.
The first Full Moon of the year is called “Wolf Moon”, a denomination that originates from the Native American tradition, but some sources also attribute to Anglo-Saxons. In Anglo-Saxon culture, the January Full Moon was also called the Moon after Yule, which is the time of the ancient festival celebrating the Winter Solstice around December 22.
The term “Wolf Moon” refers to the persistent wolf howls in the first months of the year, during the mating season and in the most rigid period, as supplies decrease.
It’s thought that January’s full Moon came to be known as the Wolf Moon because wolves were more often heard howling at this time and It was traditionally believed that they howled due to hunger during winter, even though we know today that they howl for other reasons: howling and other wolf vocalizations are generally used to define territory, locate pack members, reinforce social bonds, and coordinate hunting.
Regardless of where the name Wolf Moon comes from; wolves howl to communicate over long distances both in North America and in Europe. It is a way of saying “here I am” to the rest of the pack or “stay away” to intruders.
During the denning season in spring and early summer, wolves only howl to pack mates. As the late summer moves towards fall, wolves call more and more to neighbors and enemies and, while an average howl from a single wolf lasts from 3 to 7 seconds, a chorus by a pack can last from 30 to 120 seconds and longer during the breeding season in February. So wolves are particularly loud and “vocal” in the first months of the year, which is probably why people associated the month of January with howling wolves.
Despite the scientific community has no indication that the Moon phase plays any particular part in the calls of the wolf, wolves are nocturnal animals, so they are in general more active at night. And wolves do howl in the direction of the Moon: they point their faces toward the sky for better acoustics, because projecting their howl upward carries the sound farther.
Another fitting name for this full Moon is the “Center Moon”.
Used by the Assiniboine people of the Northern Great Plains, it refers to the idea that this Moon roughly marks the middle of the cold season.
Other traditional names for the January Moon emphasize the harsh coldness of the season: Cold Moon (Cree), Frost Exploding Moon (Cree), Freeze Up Moon (Algonquin), and Severe Moon (Dakota), while Hard Moon (Dakota) is due the phenomenon of the fallen snow developing a hard crust.
Canada Goose Moon (Tlingit), Great Moon (Cree), Greetings Moon (Western Abenaki), and Spirit Moon (Ojibwe) have also been recorded as Moon names for this month.
👉🏼 IN 2023 —
The full Wolf Moon rises on Friday, January 6, 2023 at 6:09 P.M. EST.
And It’s also a micromoon!
Think of this term as the opposite of a “Supermoon”: It simply means that the full Moon is at its farthest point from Earth, and not the nearest point. In astronomical terms, we call this “apogee.” Specifically, January’s Micro full Moon is about 252,600 miles from Earth!
Well…and why is the Moon nearer or farther (in this instance) from Earth?
Simple: The Moon orbits Earth in an elliptical path. One side is nearer to Earth and one side is farther. This distance does affect the Moon’s size and brightness, although it’s probably not that visible to the naked eye.
The perceived size of the Moon from Earth is more related to the “Moon Illusion” and how close the Moon appears to the horizon. In this case, it’s high above the horizon so it may not appear to loom over us the way it appears when it’s near the horizon.
👉🏼 IN 2022 —
January’s full Wolf Moon reaches peak illumination on Monday, January 17, at 6:51 P.M. EST.
👉🏼 IN 2021 (when this article was written) —
The Full Moon will take place on this day, January 28th at at 2:16 p.m. EST. Even if you can’t see the moon at that time, it’ll still be big and bright on both the nights of January 27 and 28.
There are typically twelve full moons in a single year, and each one has a unique name.
Names for the monthly full moons may differ from tribe to tribe, and January’s full moon has also been called the Cold Moon and Freeze Moon, referring to the temperatures of the season.
The Full Wolf Moon simply is the first of many impressive lunar events in 2021.
For istance the Full Snow Moon will appear on February 27. Then we’ll have four supermoons on March 28, April 27, May 26 and June 24. Supermoons occur when the full moon happens during a point in the moon’s orbit when it’s closer to earth than it is on average. It isn’t a scientific term but it’s exciting to see because the moon looks brighter and larger than usual.
In addition, in 2021, we’ll experience a total lunar eclipse on May 26 and an almost-total one on November 19, with the second eclipse especially being viewable in the U.S. and Canada while, on June 10, a “ring of fire” anular eclipse takes place with the moon passes in front of the sun but doesn’t cover its entire disk, causing a ring of sunlight to be viewable from parts of North America. A total eclipse of the sun occurs on December 4, but will only be seen in full from Antarctica.