How the moons were named

The moon is a goddess with many names. But it is also a celestial calendar, marking off lunar months phase by phase. Throughout history, all full moons had names, as modern months have. The meanings of full moon names show their place in the seasons, or in the work of the year.

Full moons rise near sunset. Their light extends the period in which people can work outdoors, harvesting, hunting or traveling. Moonlight was not merely romantic in ancient times, it was useful.

Harvest moon

Rising in September to hang above the fields, the brilliant Harvest Moon lengthened the working day when extra hours were needed. The harvest was a race, to get in the crops before the weather closed the fields. Everyone worked late, and moonlight helped them prepare for winter.

Hunter’s moon

Yet agriculture was not enough. After the harvest, it grew cold enough to help preserve food. Farm animals were slaughtered, and hunters roamed the wilds, to fetch meat home to their families. The Hunter’s Moon gave them light to stalk and kill, and to drag dressed animals home, across the barren ground.

Beaver moon

Before the swamps froze, trappers set out to trap beavers. Beavers never hibernate, but they do become harder to catch as they spend more time in their lodges. So November was the traditional month when trappers brought home furs to warm the family, or to augment their income.

Cold moon

Then winter set in, as December nights lengthened in the Northern Hemisphere, towards the winter solstice and the first day of winter. The Long Night Moon, the Cold Moon, hangs in the sky the longest of all the full moons, and is the moon nearest the longest night of the year.

Wolf moon

When January snows piled in drifts the wolves roamed the black and white wilderness, crying to the moon. A Pawnee wolf legend tells how death came into the world . Other tribes called this moon the Old Moon, and Christian settlers referred to it as the Moon after Yule.

Snow moon

The Snow Moon is February’s moon, when drifts pile high and winter lingers. People huddled in their homes, living off their winter store, hoping their hoarded provisions would see them through to spring. This was also called the Hunger moon.

Maple Sugar Moon

The Moon of Boiling was named for the time when the sap at last began to flow in the maples. The Ojibwa  tribe has long tapped the maple trees and boiled the sap down into the syrup and sugar that would season their food all year.

Others called this the Worm Moon, because as the snow melted the worm-shaped skin castings of earthworms appeared on the black ground. Christian settlers called it the Lenten Moon, when people fasted before Easter.

Grass Moon

In many areas of North America the first grass appears in April, a visible sign of spring. The Celts called this the Growing Moon and some English Colonials called it the Planter’s moon.

Corn Planting Moon

Corn must have warmth, to sprout fast and grow strong. Even in the warmest parts of California, people wait until the deciduous oak leaves have opened up, and the soil is warm enough to speed the growth.

Strawberry moon

Before modern hybrids, wild strawberries ripened in June. They are still found in the woods, sweet and small. This month is also called the Rose Moon, because many rose gardens are at their peak of fragrance now.

Velvet moon

In July, young male deer are in velvet. That is, a velvety coating hangs on their new antlers. This moon is also called the Thunder Moon, for the violent storms that break summer’s heat, or the Hay Moon, for crops turning golden in the fields.

Red moon

In August, haze can tint the moon, until it looks blood red when it rises or sets. This last moon of summer announces the end of the agricultural year.

Many American names for the full moon are borrowed from Indian tribes, but people around the world named the moons. Some names, like the Strawberry moon, originated in England, among rural folk who knew the seasons well.