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You might know that before calendars and clocks,  days and nights were marked by the rising and setting of the Sun and”months” were marked by the Moon phases. You could measure the time between Full Moons, or the time between New Moons. A lunar month (more scientific names are a lunation or synodic month) is the period of time between successive New Moons.

Lunar months vary slightly in length but we can be quite precise about them now. The New Moon today starts the longest lunar month of the 21st century. (That’s 2001 to 2100.)

The mean length of the lunar month lasts 29.53059 days. But the lunar month starting December 18, 2017 and ending January 17, 2018 will be more than 7 hours longer than the mean, having a duration of 29 days 19 hours 47 minutes.

This won’t change your life in any noticeable way, and you’ll probably still consider the month to be from December 1 to the 31st, but it is one of those celestial once-in-a-lifetime things.

new moon

A New Moon photo should be just black. By the modern definition, a New Moon occurs when the Moon and Sun are at the same geocentric ecliptic longitude and the part of the Moon facing us is completely in shadow. Pictured here is the traditional New Moon, actually the earliest visible waxing crescent, which signals the start of a new month in many lunar and lunisolar calendars.

Although the Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar, is in common and legal use in most countries, traditional lunar and lunisolar calendars continue to be used throughout the Old World to determine religious festivals and national holidays. Such holidays include Ramadan (Islamic calendar); the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mongolian New Year (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mongolian calendars); the Nepali New Year (Nepali calendar); the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chuseok (Chinese and Korean calendars); Loi Krathong (Thai calendar); Sunuwar calendar; Diwali (Hindu calendars) and Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew calendar).

“Bye Bye Moon” is not meant to be a sequel to Goodnight MoonDid you know that the moon’s distance from Earth varies each month? I didn’t know that until this week, even though I know a lot about our Moon and I write about it at least once a month here.

Our Moon has a rather eccentric orbit and it is moving away from us at about one and a half inches per year. Scientists attribute this to tidal friction with the Earth’s oceans which also slows down how fast the Earth rotates, This lengthens our day by about 1 second every 40000 years.

Okay, it is not something we really will notice or need to worry about, but because scientists can do simulations, they can figure out that four and a half billion years ago when the moon was being formed,  it was only about 15,000 miles from Earth. Now, it is about 238, 831 miles from Earth.

Back then, an Earth day might have been only 5 or 6 hours long and there would be 1400 days in one year. More recently, at least relatively, around 900 million years ago there would be 480 days of about 18 hours each in one Earth year. That would certainly give us a very different lifestyle.

And projecting into the future, we would expect longer days but fewer of them in a year.

Even though we can’t observe these changes within a lifetime, it awesome and full of wonder to me that these changes are happening.

wheel

The recent summer solstice reminds me that many of our current rituals and holidays have some basis in the calendars of the ancient Celts and other cultures. The turning of the “Wheel of the Year” was a concept used in varying ways by several cultures.

Historians don’t all agree about whether the ancient Celts observed the solstices and equinoxes. They may have divided the year into four major sections: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnasadh. Today those days are referred to as Quarter Days.

Some historians believe the ancient Celts observed eight divisions of the year – the four major sections, which are the equinoxes and solstices each beginning with a quarter day, and then a further halving into four cross-quarter days.

It is important to remember that the seasons as we know them today are not ancient division, though they are certainly based on some of the same celestial observations. The solstices and equinoxes nicely divided an agrarian lifestyle year.

The adoption of the 12-month Roman calendar for civil and then religious purposes began to align closely with the liturgical year of the Christian church.

The eight divisions are: Midwinter (Yule), Imbolc, Vernal Equinox (Ostara), Beltane, Midsummer (Litha), Lammas/Lughnasadh, Autumnal equinox (Mabon) and Samhain.

The Cross-Quarter Days marked the midpoint between a solstice and equinox, and for the ancient Celts, these marked the beginning of each season. As far as “seasons,” there were only two divisions: winter marked with Samhain which was the start of the dark half of the year, and summer/Beltane to begin the light half of the year.

The Wheel of the Year is the annual cycle of seasonal festivals, still observed by many modern Pagans. It consists of either four or eight festivals depending on whether they observe the solstices and equinoxes, or include the four midpoint cross quarter days.

A sun cross is a design found in the symbolism of prehistoric cultures, particularly during the Neolithic to Bronze Age periods of European prehistory. Its importance in prehistoric religion has made its interpretation as a solar symbol.

Popular legend in Ireland says that the Celtic Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan, though there are no examples from this early period. The legend is that St. Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross to bring the pagan followers a connection to the Christian cross. The cross also divided the solar year into quarters.

Midsummer's Eve

Midsummer’s Eve Bonfire on Skagen’s Beach by P.S. Krøyer

Is it midsummer already? Why, it seems like we just started summer this past week.  Yes, we did just pass the summer solstice. But Midsummer, also known as St John’s Day and Litha, is a day or the period of time centered upon the summer solstice. In most Northern European celebrations, the event takes place on a day between June 19 and June 25 and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between different cultures.

Today is St. John’s Day, so we can celebrate Midsummer today too. The Christian Church designated June 24 as the feast day of the early Christian martyr St John the Baptist, and the observance of St John’s Day begins the evening before, known as St John’s Eve.

European midsummer celebrations are pre-Christian in origin. In the Southern Hemisphere (mostly in Brazil, Argentina and Australia), this imported European celebration would be more appropriately called “Midwinter.”

Midsummer is also sometimes referred to by some Neopagans as Litha, the fire festival.  Bonfires were lit to protect against evil spirits which were believed to roam freely when the sun was turning southward again. Some believed that witches were also on their way to meetings with other powerful beings.

 

Some call this May Day. Depending on where you live, it could be International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries. Not many people are celebrating Beltane, so let’s mark that festival here.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival which came into English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May First.”

Traditionally large bonfires would be lit to celebrate this transition from spring to summer and the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

The annual Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland is the prime modern example.

Today, the neo-pagan community, often associated with the art of fire dancing, have also embraced the Beltane festivities.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance is a remnant of these old festivities.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan tree. Twigs and branches of the rowan were, and still are, used as protection against evil in this part of the world.

May Day is another name often given to this day. That derives from the Greek goddess Maia, the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes. From her, we get the name of this month. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia.

A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance often takes place. The festivals may occur on May Day or Pentecost (Whitsun), although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer.

May Day celebrations were continued by early European settlers to the American continent with May baskets filled with flowers or treats left secretly at someone’s doorstep. If the receiver catches the fleeing giver, a kiss is exchanged.

 

May Day basket

May Day basket

 

Annual cicada, Tibicen linnei

Annual cicada, Tibicen linnei

August is the sound of insects at night. When I am sitting outside I am assaulted by cicadas loudly announcing that it is mid-summer.

I wouldn’t call their sound a “song” and cicadas are pretty creepy looking. I came upon a dead one today when I opened the barbecue grill. (Take a look at this cicada molting for a quick sci-fi moment.) They have those large, wide apart eyes transparent, veined wings.

Cicadas are often colloquially called locusts, but they are unrelated to true locusts. In the second half of August,  you find their cast off shells around the garden.

And then there are the katydids.

You can hear some calling out “Katy did! Katy did!” in one part of the trees, and another answering “Katy didn’t, didn’t, didn’t!” from the opposite direction.   Listen to them.

katydid

Okay, I admit that I don’t really hear those words clearly in their song.  I have trouble with bird songs that are compared to human speech and seeing the “pictures” in constellations. It is a bit of a stretch, but good for the imagination.

True katydids (Pterophylla camellifolia) are relatives of grasshoppers and crickets. They grow over two inches long and are leaf-green in color. Katydids have oval-shaped wings with lots of veins which makes them look a lot like leaves. They spend most of their time at the tops of trees.

According to my nature calendar where I record buds, blooms, fruiting and other signs of seasonal change, the katydids usually show up right at the start of August. This year, the cicadas and katydids arrived a week early.

It is a folklore observation that says that autumn will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing.  That would make it the last week of October here in Paradelle.

You are much more likely to hear a katydid than see it.  And what are they singing about? Like many insects, they are singing for love. Or lust, I suppose, as the males are trying to attract a mate. This is their reproductive season (August through mid-October).

The males are high in the trees and females come to them. Katydids are poor flier, preferring to walk, and a male katydid may never leave the tree on which he was hatched.

Their song comes from rubbing their wings together (known scientifically as stridulating) and the other katydids are listening with tympanal membranes on their knees.

The song’s tempo is faster in hot weather and slower on a cool night. Their number diminish as we get into fall and that first hard frost will kill the remaining ones.

Katydids eat leaves of most deciduous trees and shrubs, and seem to like oaks best. But they don’t do any serious damage to the trees or shrubs, so we don’t bother spraying insecticides for them. Their enemies are the birds, bats, spiders, frogs, snakes, and other insect-eaters.

There are some folk stories about “what Katy did” but none I have read are very interesting. I prefer to think of them as a signal that summer is half over, and their song fades as summer fades.

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