Ever notice that every full moon seems to come with a new name?
November's Frost Moon is one of many in the year with a unique name, and it all ties in with how the seasons change and the symbolism behind each new moon, at least in the U.S. The two most famous are the harvest moon and the hunter's moon, symbolic events in the middle of the year that are closest to the autumnal equinox, and their incidence (though not necessarily their name) is celebrated in other cultures beyond America; the Japanese festival of Tsukimi, for instance, revolves around moon-watching parties in the autumn. But there's a different name for every moon, and an explanation for all of them — though they may not be as clear-cut as they seem.
North American names for the full moon come from myriad places: they mix Native American mythology with colonial traditions, but aren't the same from place to place. One myth that's much-perpetuated about the different names for the full moon is that they all come from the Algonquin tribe, and while many almanacs cite that tribe as the source, it's more likely that the names for the different moons come from all kinds of places. To understand why, and to check out the interesting and beautiful history of American moon names, let's look at each moon's name.
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This is one of the names alleged to have come from Algonquin ideas about the moon's significance; the wolf moon was meant to signify
the wolves howling during January while on the hunt in packs for food on a winter landscape. Astronomer Bob Berman wrote in his book Strange Universe that "January's full moon was called the Winter Moon or Yule Moon by the colonists, [and] the Wolf Moon or Old Moon by the Algonquin." However, the Algonquin theory isn't necessarily supported by evidence: Phil Konstantin, a member of the Cherokee Nation, has collected lists of moon names from Native American nations across the U.S. and Canada, from the Cree to the Sioux, and the Algonquin name for the January moon in his research is The idea of a wolf moon, according to Konstantin's data, instead comes from the Sioux nation, who refer to the January moon as "wolves run together." squochee kesos, "sun has not strength to thaw."
The logic behind this one isn't difficult; it's generally the month where the heaviest snows fall. This name isn't a Native American one, however: The Choctaw nation call the early February moon
the "moon of big famine/great hunger," and the Cherokee nation calls it the "bony moon," according to Skywise. David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images
The Pink Moon is the first full moon of spring, and the name refers to the budding of one of the earliest spring flowers in the Northern hemisphere after the winter:
the moss pink, or wild ground phlox. This one appears to be inspired by a variety of flower-themed moon names from nations across the American continent, from the Cherokee to the Mohawk, all of whom gave the April moon names to do with blooms and buds. The moon itself, it's necessary to add, usually isn't colored pink itself. David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images
The flower moon of the mid-spring May month is fairly self-explanatory. The colonists from England likely didn't come up with this one, because their variation was to call
May's moon the milk moon, after the abundance of dairy available from grass-gorging cattle and goats. The Cree call it the frog moon, presumably because the increasing heat means frogs start to call in the evenings, while the Lakota, Mohawk and Shoshone nations all have names for the moon centring around flowers. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"Male deer, which shed their antlers every year, begin to regrow them in July, hence the Native American name for July's full moon," writes
National Geographic. Actually there's not a lot of evidence that this one comes from a Native American name at all; many nations label July's moon as something to do with heat, summer, or salmon, depending on their location. So this one probably comes from early European settlers, or from late 19th and early 20th century almanacs of the season, which also label it the hay or thunder moon.
As rivers began to fill with sturgeon, the idea goes, Native American nations labelled the moon of August to celebrate the fish's abundance. Unfortunately, this seems to be another myth. Native American moon names for August focus on
berries, geese feathers, and cutting down corn and grass, which means this one probably originated with colonial fishermen and their descendants who wanted to commemorate the season of good fishing in America's Great Lakes. Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images
This is one of the rare full moon names that can be traced through the ages. Historians have traced one of the first uses of it in English to the English poet
Isaac Watts, who wrote in The Celebrated Victory of the Poles in 1706: "Where flows the fruitful Danube; seventy springs Smiled on his seed, seventy harvest-moons Fill'd his wide granaries with autumnal joy." It's clearly an idea that was carried over with colonists to the Americas, but it became truly popular in the 20th century with a seriously catchy tune sung by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, released in 1903: "Shine On Harvest Moon." The song, with its famous refrain "shine on, shine on harvest moon, For me and my gal", became a huge hit and cemented the concept in the American consciousness. Harvesting shows up in various Native American names for the month's moon too, including the Navajo and Oneida.
This is one of the most famous of the moon-names, and it seems it's been misattributed entirely to Native Americans for a long time. The name first shows up in the Oxford English Dictionary using a citation from 1710, a
publication called The British Apollo, which contained "two thousand answers to curious questions in most arts and sciences". According to that text, which may or may not be reliable, the "hunter's moon" is a term used by "the country people." Over time, this attribution has morphed into "Native American people" (of which there is no evidence, as none of Konstantin's lists contain any reference to hunting in October), and an entire mythology: that Native Americans hunted fattened deer and rabbits in the light of the October moon. While that may have happened, it seems to have nothing to do with the name.
November: Frost or Beaver Moon
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November's Beaver Moon is all about the
seasonal occurrence of the beavers as the weather gets colder and the rivers increasingly freeze. It's one of the names that's supposedly based on the Algonquin name, but that turns out to be wrong: the November moon in the Algonquin language is "quinne kesos", which is translated as "white frost on the grass," which may explain the other name of the moon. And it won't surprise you at this point to know that beavers don't show up in any of the traditional names for October's moon, though their versions are more descriptive (the Dakota, for instance, call it the Deer Shedding Antlers Moon). Considering the importance of the beaver pelt industry to the fur trade until the 20th century — a 17th century Jesuit missionary wrote that the Canadian Native Americans mocked the colonists' passion for the beast's fur, and that it was trapped in huge numbers — it's not tricky to see how this one emerged from colonial mythology.
The prize for the least descriptive moon name goes to December. Unsurprisingly, coldness and temperature do show up in Native American names for this moon: the
Cherokee, for instance, call it the "snow or frost moon," the Mohawk refer to "the time of cold", and the Zuni of New Mexico say it means "the sun has travelled home to rest", while the Oneida get literal and call it the "moon of exploding trees" (which pop with cold). Colonists from England likely called this the Moon Before Yule, the traditional Christmas season, but as those trappings faded it's not surprising that the month's dominant feature came to describe it.