Once in a Blue Moon
“Once in a Blue Moon” expresses the sense of a rare or infrequent occurrence, where folklore and science dance together in the land of “Oops”. Folklore tells of the “Blue Moon” rooted in history, from instances when the moon appeared to take on a bluish hue due to natural conditions in the air: (i.e. ash from volcanic eruptions, forest fire haze, dust from droughts). As with all great stories the tale of the Blue Moon is open to speculation, debate…and entertaining controversy.
Once upon a time, there stood tradition —
In the days of early American settlers, full moons were assigned names to track the passage of time, and to indicate seasonal tasks to be performed. Names were adopted from those already in use by the native tribes, and others were created to fit the culture. Native tribes called the spring moon “Worm Moon” indicating that the thawing ground would soon bring the return of the robins, or “Crow Moon” when the sound of the birds’ caws foreshadowed the end of winter. The Northeast settlers called this springtime full moon “Sugar Moon” or “Sap Moon” as it was the time of year to tap the maple trees for their precious sweet fluid.
The autumn “Harvest Moon” was known to both settlers and native tribes. Its bright light shone well into the evening, allowing more time for work in the fields. Also in autumn was the “Hunter’s Moon”, a practical reminder to prepare for the coming winter, when food would be scarce.
Tradition meets science —
A full moon occurs at the precise time the sun and moon are directly opposite in the sky…180 degrees apart. The monthly lunar cycle (the time it takes to complete all lunar phases, from new moon to full moon and back to next new moon) is roughly 29.5 days. Generally there are 12 full moons in a year, but occasionally (about every 2.67 years) there are 13 moons in a year, due to the length of the monthly lunar cycle. When an “extra” full moon appears it throws off the naming convention, and a task may no longer align with its intended full moon name. (We wouldn’t want to miss out on that maple syrup!)
Traditionally, full moons were counted by tropical year—meaning that they followed the seasons, with the first being counted from the Winter Solstice (around December 20th). Usually there were 3 full moons per season, but occasionally a fourth full moon appeared in the same season. To keep tasks on schedule, the Maine Farmer’s Almanac long ago printed a rule of thumb as a helpful guide. When there are 4 four full moons in any given season, the third of these is assigned the general placeholder name “Blue Moon”, which keeps the fourth full moon of the season on track with its intended naming scheme. The term Blue Moon, in this instance, is a marker to bring timing back into sync…like members of a marching band use a small skip step to get back on beat and keep in rhythm with the group.
“Oops” joins the party —
A well-meaning amateur astronomer misinterpreted the Maine Almanac’s rule of thumb and counted the full moons not by season but by calendar quarter. He wrote that whenever two full moons fell within the same month, the second of those is a Blue Moon. His article was picked up and printed in 1946 by the well-respected Sky & Telescope Magazine and…oops, there it is…a modified rule of thumb became our new folklore! (Thankfully by the mid 20th century we relied far less on lunar phases as timing reminders.) Long-standing tradition that once served as practical advice was joined on the shelves of great stories by a sequel. And the Blue Moon gets as much attention as ever…regularly dredged up in conversation, media hype, and public curiosity.
Blue Moon of August 2012 —
For those who follow the “Oops” rule of thumb, August 2012 is one of those months with a second full moon…a Blue Moon on the 31st…but not everywhere. Folks in places like Auckland, New Zealand, and Vladivostok, Russia will already be in the first day of September by the time that full moon makes it’s official appearance. (The time of the August 31st full moon is 13:58 GMT, which is the wee hours of the morning on September 1st in both Auckland and Vladivostok.) But, those parts of the world will have two full moons in September; so by the monthly convention they will have their Blue Moon, just in a different month.
Traditional purists in our part of the world who follow the tropical rule will note that August 2012 does not have a Blue Moon. The August 31st full moon is only the third of the summer season (counting from the Summer Solstice). The same thinking applies to folks with the two September full moons. The first September full moon falls in one season and the second September full moon occurs in another…different seasons, no Blue Moon.
More Rare than a Blue Moon —
There is a full moon phenomenon far more rare than a Blue Moon…when the full moon fails to make an appearance in the short month of February. The number of days in February is less than the 29.5-day lunar cycle. Very infrequently there will be no full moon during the month of February…as was the case in 1999 and 1961 (based on Greenwich Mean Time).
All’s Well That Ends Well —
Whether counting full moons, believing the moon is made of green cheese, giving a friendly nod to the man in the moon (or the hare) — we take comfort in knowing that our familiar Blue Moon will return in full splendor…in due time. Until then, there’s always room for one more story about the moon.
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