What is a Wolf Moon? The Meaning Behind the Name of January 2021's Full Moon

The first full moon of 2021 will soon grace the skies—and it is known as a "wolf moon." But where does this name come from?

For thousands of years, Europeans and native North Americans named the lunar months after certain characteristics of the seasons in the northern hemisphere. Coincidentally, many of these names are very similar or identical.

When European colonists arrived in North America, they may have adopted some of the indigenous names into the calendar that we use today, according to timeanddate.com.

Today, the names given to full moons appear to be a combination of traditional Native American, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic month names.

The full moon in January is often referred to as the "wolf moon." One explanation about how this name originated is that wolves were frequently heard howling at this time of year, according to the Old Farmer's Almanac.

People used to think that wolves howled a lot in winter due to hunger, but now we know they make these vocalizations for different reasons, including marking their territory, finding other pack members, strengthening social bonds and communicating while hunting.

Another traditional name for the January full moon is the "center moon"—a term used by the Assiniboine people from the northern Great Plains of North America. This name refers to the fact that the January full moon falls in the middle of the winter season.

There are several other traditional names for this moon used by Native American peoples, including the cold moon, frost exploding moon, freeze up moon, severe moon and hard moon.

The moon is said to be full when the Earth is located directly between the sun and our natural satellite, which occurs roughly once every calendar month.

Technically, the moon becomes full at a specific moment in time. At this time, it will be fully illuminated, appearing like a perfect circle in the night sky.

The moon becomes full on January 28 at 2:18 p.m. EST, although it won't be visible until the evening in North America. Observers will have to wait until after sunset to catch a glimpse of the full moon, which will set at sunrise.

While the moon technically becomes full at a single moment, to the untrained eye it will appear full for around 24 hours either side of this time.

The next full moon, which is often referred to as the snow moon, will appear on February 27, 2021.

The last full moon of 2020
The last full moon of 2020 rises behind the snow-topped San Gabriel Mountains and the Los Angeles downtown skyline at sunset as seen from the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area on December 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images