No Need to Howl When You See January's Wolf Moon

By: Valerie Stimac  | 
wolf, moon
January's full moon is often called the wolf moon because of the increased activity of wolf packs during the early part of the year. Sanford/Agliolo/Getty Images

As the calendar turns over to a new year, there's always plenty to look forward to: hopeful attempts at resolutions, plans for the coming 12 months and a new calendar of astronomical events. For most people in the Northern Hemisphere, January marks the rough mid-point of the winter season and there's no more quintessential winter scene than a full moon rising above a snowy vista with the stars twinkling in the night sky.

The full moon in January is sometimes called the wolf moon and you might wonder why each full moon has a nickname and where those names come from. In this ongoing series, you can learn about moon nicknames like January's wolf moon. Here are three facts you may not know about it.


1. The Wolf Moon Begins a New Calendar Year

In 2023, the full wolf moon appears at 21:08 GMT (6:08 p.m. EST) on Jan. 6. Unlike the nicknames of other full moons throughout the year, the exact origins of the name wolf moon for January's full moon are unknown. It's thought that the name was brought over by English and Celtic settlers to North America and describes the increased activity of wolf packs during the early part of the year – including howling at night when the moon brightly illuminates the sky.

January's full moon is also a micromoon, the opposite of a supermoon. This means the moon will be approaching its greatest distance from Earth, called its apogee. When the moon is farther from Earth, it appears slightly smaller in the sky, hence the "micromoon" moniker.


2. January's Full Moon Has Many Names

In addition to calling it the wolf moon, there are a number of other names for the first full moon of the modern calendar year.

In Anglo-Saxon culture, the full moon in January is also called "the moon after Yule." Yule is an ancient festival usually celebrated around December 21, the winter solstice. This is an appropriate nickname, as the full moon in December – the cold moon – is called "the moon before Yule" by pagan groups.


Another logical nickname comes from the Assiniboin people of the northern Great Plains of North America; they called it the center moon to note that it occurred roughly halfway through the cold winter season.

For even more options, you could call January's full moon the frost exploding moon (from the Cree people), the freeze up moon (Algonquin) or the Canada goose moon (Tlingit). The Dakota people called it the hard moon for the hard crust that forms on the snow. Another nickname is the ice moon, according to NASA, not to be confused with the snow moon, which is February's full moon. As you can see, all these names reflect a moon that appears during cold winter nights.

Other nicknames include the severe moon and the hunger moon, because of the harsh time of year, and the spirit moon, as some Native American tribes saw this moon as heralding a time for spiritual reflection.


3: Wolves Don't Really Howl at the Moon

Wolves aren't really in tune with the moon phases, but they are nocturnal animals, so they roam at night. And they do point their faces to the sky (if not the moon) because projecting the howl upward makes the sound travel a longer distance. It was originally thought that wolves howled because of hunger during the winter, but now we know wolves howl for many different reasons, like locating pack members and defining territory.