Google “Blue Moon” and the first things that show up are a beer company (must be 21 years or older to access this Web site), a Wikipedia entry and a drive-in theater in Guin, Ala. (now showing double features on two screens).
The meaning of blue moon has evolved over time. The most recent definition of the term, at least in the celestial sense, is that it is the second full moon in a month.
Full moons occur every 29.5 days, so most years have one blue moon — 17 will occur in the next 20 years. Rare is the year with two blue moons — about once every 19 years, almost always in January and March. The most recent occurred in 1999.
Full moons have been given folk names such as the Harvest Moon (October), the Old Moon (January) and the Egg Moon (April). They also have Native American names: Hunter”s Moon, Wolf Moon and Pink Moon for October, January and April. And other names are used as well: the Honey Moon (June), Dog Moon (August) and Blood Moon (October).
The first English reference to a blue moon is thought to have occurred in a pamphlet published in 1528 attacking the English clergy. Titled, “Rede Me and Be Not Wrothe” (Read me and be not angry), the broadside contains the phrase, “Yf they say the mone is belewe/We must believe that it is true.” (If they say the moon is blue, we must believe that it is true.) A year later the notion of a moon made of cheese popped up: “They would make men beleue … that the Moone is made of grene cheese” (They would make men believe … that the moon is made of green cheese).
For centuries the term was synonymous with impossibility: “She”ll marry him next blue moon.” Some folktales portray the full blue moon with a face and the ability to talk to those in its light.
There have been times when the moon actually turned blue. When an Indonesian volcano erupted in 1883, its dust turned sunsets green and the moon blue all around the world for almost two years. In 1927, the Indian monsoons were late arriving and the extra-long dry season blew up enough dust for a blue moon. And, moons in northeastern North America turned blue in 1950 from forest fires in Sweden and Canada threw smoke particles causing the moon to appear blue.
The term took a new meaning in the 19th and early 20th centuries thanks to the Maine “Farmers” Almanac.” The publication listed blue moon dates for farmers, defining blue moon as the third moon that appeared in a quarter with four full moons. For example, in a summer with four full moons, you would have an early summer moon, a mid-summer moon, a blue moon and a late-summer moon.
The common understanding of a blue moon — the second full moon in a month — comes from an error in a 1946 magazine article. Writing in “Sky and Telescope” magazine James Pruett, in a piece titled “Once in a Blue Moon” misinterpreted the 1937 Maine “Farmers” Almanac,” declaring that the second full moon in a month constituted a blue moon. The mistake was restated on the popular radio program “Star Date” in January 1980, and a new meaning was born.
On Thursday, New Year”s Eve, we”re going to have a blue moon, the first such occurrence in 19 years. As it turns out, full moons often occur on the same date at 19-year intervals. Blue moons occurred on Dec. 31 in 1933, 1952, 1971 and 1990.
The next New Year”s Eve full moon will be 2028.
For those of you, who, like me, are usually sleeping when the new year rolls in, this might be a time to make an exception. Later this week when 2009 ends, I hope to be standing outside with family and friends looking up at the night sky. The occasion offers a rare and sacred opportunity, a reason — if reason were needed — to celebrate our continued existence at this the end of the first decade of the 21st century.
Information for this column came from the Internet encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and other online sources.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.