The third moon in the lunar year is the Wolf Moon. It is new between 28 December and 25 January; it’s full between 11 January and 8 February. This is one of the latest Wolf Moons. In fact, most of the new moons of 2023 fall at the tail end of their range, leading to an interesting sequence later in the year… but we’ll get to that when it happens.
The period of the Wolf Moon is the coldest time of year in the North. It is also when stores of food are running low and hunger is stalking every home. Significantly, this is also the breeding season for wolves. They are calling to each other in the lovesick long nights of deep winter.
Our ancestors heard wolves howling at the moon at this time of year not because those wolves were coming for them — though that made a good metaphor for the hunger that was stalking humanity at this time of year — but because those wolves were singing love songs to potential mates. I tend to think our ancestors, being much wiser in many ways than we are — certainly wiser than we tend to believe of them — probably knew about wolf breeding cycles. They were keen observers of their world. Many of them felt deep kinship with wolves. And besides, it’s just good policy to keep track of the animal that is most likely to kill your sheep.
The Midwinter Moon goes Dark on 21 January at 3:53pm, so the Wolf Moon is conceivably visible as a new crescent today at sunset… if you have a clear western horizon and no clouds. There is also a nice conjunction between very bright Venus and not-as-bright Saturn. But that is very low, only 10° — about two fists — above a flat western horizon. Not something we have here in the Green Mountains.
Tomorrow, all three — Venus, Saturn and the crescent Moon — will be more visible together around sunset. But whether the moon is visible or not, January 22nd welcomes in Chinese New Year!
Chinese New Year
The solar year, the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, is slightly more than 365 days long. The traditional Chinese calendar is lunisolar — it incorporates the moon’s cycle into the solar year. A Chinese calendar month is 28 days long, about the length of time it takes for the moon to orbit the earth. A normal Chinese lunisolar year lasts from 353 to 355 days, and to keep the calendar in sync with the sun and the seasons, the Chinese add an extra leap month about one year out of three.
Most years, Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (December 21). The exact calculation of the New Year is a bit tiresome and we’re just going to leave it alone. So Chinese New Year usually occurs with the New Snow Moon, but this year it happens with the New Wolf Moon. In any case, it is fixed to the period between 21 January and 21 February. This fixed window of time is one of the restrictions that make determining the date tiresome — there was a Board of Mathematics responsible for the calculations — but it keeps the lunar year from drifting away from the seasonal year.
New Year celebrations around the world are a time for prognostication. Hence Groundhog Day and First Footing and any number of divination customs associated with Midwinter and Samhaine. In China there is a tradition of determining the tenor of the upcoming harvest from the number of days between the solstice and the lunar new year. If there are 50 days, food supplies will be sufficient. Every day under fifty is a deficit; every day over fifty is a surplus. The arithmetic usually works out to a gloomy prognosis because there are only 53 days between 20 December, the earliest possible date for the winter solstice, and 21 February, the latest date allowed to the New Year.
Chinese New Year is also called the Spring Festival, and the new lunar year is sometimes set to the new moon closest to the beginning of spring which is on or around 4 February in the Chinese seasonal calendar. This is obviously difficult, not least because the onset of spring varies. There is also the regular problem of early and late New Years when two new moons can be evenly spaced on either side of 4 February. So this method of determining the new year is seldom used though it gives the celebration its more common name in China.
The first month in the Chinese calendar is called the Holiday Moon, and there are ritual celebrations throughout the month. The Chinese New Year Festival itself lasts for the first two weeks — from Dark Moon to Full. There are both religious and secular rituals. On the first day people welcome the gods of heaven and earth. There is no work done — or allowed — and no travel. Using sharp tools is considered inauspicious, so cooking is done the day before. Fireworks are lit in the evening, and in traditional communities wells are closed for the first two days of the year. The second day is for prayer to both gods and ancestors. The next two days are for men to pay respect to the fathers of their wives. On the fifth day, there is no travel; people welcome the god of wealth into their homes (coincidently tying into the Yuletide 5th Day gift of “five golden rings”… except there are no coincidences). The next week is given over to community and family gatherings as well as temple visits. The celebration culminates in the Lantern Festival with its colorful lights, dragon and lion dances and, of course, rice dumplings!
It is traditional to set out platters of oranges — the symbol of happiness — and candied fruit to start the new year sweetly. Wishes for health and good fortune are written on red scrolls and hung around the home. As this is a celebration of the awakening spring as well as the new year, flowers and floral decorations abound. When visiting others, it is customary to bring a bag of oranges or tangerines as a gift, and any candies eaten off the tray of happiness are replaced with red envelopes containing coins for children. These coins are incidental; it’s the envelope that is important. Red is the color of good fortune and abundance. The coins merely accentuate the symbolism.
The cycle of years in the Chinese system follows the cycle of the twelve Earthly Branches, each of which is associated with a sign of the zodiac and an animal that represents the branch. The years are named for this animal symbol, and those born in a given year are thought to have the characteristics of that animal. This is the year of the Rabbit, the fourth emblem in the 12-year cycle in the Chinese zodiac. Rabbits are also the animal most closely associated with the moon in Chinese culture. Where Westerners see a face — the “man in the moon” — Easterners see a long-eared rabbit. Once you see the bunny, it is hard to see a face again. (In my family, we call the full phase of the moon the full rabbit.)
People born in Rabbit years are believed to be earnest, kind and diligent, quiet and goal-oriented. They are gregarious with a wide, if somewhat shallow, social circle. However, they find it hard to truly open up to people because they get hurt and annoyed when people do not treat them with sincerity and courteous regard. They are logical and pay close attention to details, qualities that make them excellent scholars. They tend to be conservative most of the time, but their playful nature can sometimes be expressed in spontaneity and surprise. Oddly, A. A. Milne seems to have captured the essence of Rabbit in his beloved character who often serves as a foil for Winnie-the-Pooh.
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Montley, Patricia. In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. 2000. Skinner House Books: Boston, Massachusetts.
January 22nd is also St Vincent’s Day. He is the patron saint of a great number of things, but of significance for this day is that he watches over vintners. As such the day is an important weather marker. If the sun shines, then there will be a good grape harvest and much good wine. If it’s miserable — as it often is in late January — then the prognosis for a good vintage is not so great.
Vincent of Zaragoza was an Iberian deacon and martyr from the 4th century. He preached under the Roman Empire at a time when the emperors Diocletian and Maximilian horribly persecuted Christians. It is believed that in 304 Vincent was sentenced to death and tortured on a wine press chest, which might have given us his name because it may be a reference to blood flowing from the press instead of wine. “Vin-cent” can be read as a play of words in French: vin, “wine”, and sang, “blood”.
(I am not sure this derivation holds water because the name of the saint predates all the vernacular Romance languages by several centuries. Also, Vincent himself was from what is now Spain, and this sound play doesn’t work as well in Spanish… But many names and details were changed in translation, so perhaps? Undoubtedly, his name is derived from the vine somehow. Probably something more like “hundred vines”, if the name comes to us from Latin.)
Another legend has it that while Vincent stopped by a vineyard to chat with the vintner, his donkey grazed some vine shoots. The vines, thus pruned, yielded an excellent harvest that autumn. But 22 January is a bit early for pruning. This is typically when both the vine and the vintners are at rest between the hard work of fermenting the wine and growing the grapes.
But then, the date of a saint’s feast is normally taken from martyrdom, not from life or any natural occurrence. So it may be that the weather marker predates Vincent, perhaps even having shifted a bit. Similar forecasts for wine and ale are also associated with St Brigid’s Day. It may actually be a date that was originally tied to the New Moon around Candlemas, deriving from the lunisolar calendar of the Celtic peoples — who grew grapes in the southern parts of their homelands and grain-based alcohol up north. And Vincent was squarely from the Celtic (Iberian) vine-lands.
(Much of the above is adapted from the International Federation of Wine Brotherhoods.)
©Elizabeth Anker 2023