The Arctic front that brought eastern Washington and north Idaho brutal cold with sub-zero temperatures and ferocious wind chills earlier this month swept away the mass of clouds that made our world gray. Along with the frigid temps, the front ushered in sunshine and blue skies. One day, I happened to be driving home at dusk. As I looked ahead, low on the southwestern horizon, was a gigantic sliver of light, like a huge, glowing fingernail in the sky: the nearly new moon. I was awestruck by its beauty, grateful for the clear skies that allowed such a majestic vision. But no night sky can match the splendor of that with the full moon.
For our farming ancestors, such majesty in the sky was much more than just a visual delight. It was a useful tool for organizing the cycles of their farming lives. Agrarians, for thousands of years, relied on the moon the way we rely on our calendars. They tracked the movement of the moon to set schedules for hunting, planting, and harvesting. Each month’s moon was associated with its season. They gave names to each month’s full moon based on the behavior of the plants, animals, or weather during that month.
On the 25th, January’s full moon for 2024 will “rise” in the northeastern sky. My research tells me that the January full moon is called the Wolf Moon. Why Wolf Moon? And exactly who came up with the name?
Experts collectively agree that the wolf is a winter animal. As it gets colder, wolves grow thick, warm coats protecting them from the chill and the winds. Their insulation actually includes two layers of fur. Close to their skin is a dense undercoat, and longer outer hairs repel water and snow. They huddle together with their pack for warmth, and will lie with their furry tails over their snouts to capture their warm breath. Well-adapted to cold weather, the wolf is at its most active during the winter season. Wolves take advantage of the weather in winter to hunt their prey. Deer, for example, have difficulty running across snow. Winter also leaves prey vulnerable due to lack of food.
So in January, if you live in the country, you probably hear wolves howling, especially on the night of the full moon. Despite common misperception, wolves aren’t howling at the full moon. They’re howling to communicate. It might be a warning shout to enemies to say keep away. Or to announce, “Here I am!” Or call out to the pack, “It’s dinnertime!” Also, because they’re winter animals, they howl more during the colder seasons simply because they are excited and happy.
Wolf experts say that wolves aren’t true nocturnal animals, so they don’t have the best eyesight at night. The light of the full moon makes it the most advantageous time for wolves to successfully hunt at night. Therefore, the full moon in January is when wolves are the most active of all times. Wolves are particularly loud and vocal in the first months of the year.
While wolves aren’t howling at the moon per se, they are howling 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.”
The answer to who first came up with the name for January’s Wolf Moon is less clear cut. Most sources attribute the origins of the name as well as other names for the full moon to Native Americans. Then Colonial Americans adopted the names. Other sources credit the Wolf Moon to Celtic and Old English origins. Still, others cite Germanic origins.
The Farmer’s Almanac indicates that folklore is also associated with the full moon:
“A bright first moon brings promises of rain and good harvest while a red-tinted moon signals a dry year ahead.
A halo around the moon predicts wet or stormy weather.
A growing moon and flowing tide are regarded as lucky times to marry.”
While the moniker Wolf Moon has garnered the most popularity, different Native American tribes use other names for January’s full moon. For example, the Cree call it the Cold Moon, Great Moon, and Frost Exploding Moon. The Alonquin use Freeze Up Moon. Severe Moon and Hard Moon are both Dakota names. Other recorded names include Canada Goose Moon (Tlingit), Greetings Moon (Western Abenaki), and Spirit Moon (Ojibewe).
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.
My personal favorite name for January’s full moon comes from Celtic tradition, as it offers welcomed advice for this cold weather: The Stay at Home Moon. With any luck, on the 25th, I’ll be viewing the Wolf Moon or Stay at Home Moon through my window from the comfort and warmth of my living room.
Amy McGarry grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington. After a 20 year hiatus, she moved back to Spokane Valley where she lives with her husband, daughter and two cats. She is the author of “I am Farang: Adventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand” available on Amazon.com, Auntie’s Bookstore, and Barnes and Noble.