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Image via Oliver Jeffers

On this New Year’s Eve, I will look up to the night sky to the brightest star there. That is Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. You can see it in the evening every year at this time from almost all parts of Earth. Tonight is not only the calendar end of year but, in one of those nice celestial coincidences, it is the midnight culmination of Sirius. That is when it is highest in the sky at midnight, which occurs only once every year.

I need to point out that this midnight is mid-night and not the drop-the-ball midnight we will celebrate tonight. What I will call mid-night is the actual middle of the night, which is midway between sunset and sunrise. For my little piece of Paradelle, that will be at 9:18 pm ET.

If you go to http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/mrst.php you can get a quick calculation done for your little place on Earth for the times of the rise, set, and transit for the Sun and all major solar system bodies and selected bright stars.

From the Northern Hemisphere, we will look toward the south to see Sirius shining brightly on a clear night. (From the Southern Hemisphere, look overhead or high in the north.)

Sirius, the Dog Star, gets its name from a romanization of the Greek Seirios, meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” It appears almost twice as bright as the next brightest star (Canopus). Sirius appears bright because of its “intrinsic luminosity” and also because of its proximity to Earth.  It is 2.6 parsecs away. I know that sounds like Star Trek talk, but the Sirius system is one of Earth’s near neighbours. Sirius is gradually moving closer to the Solar System, so it will slightly increase in brightness over the next 60,000 years. After that time, its distance will begin to increase and it will become fainter. But Sirius doesn’t have to worry about losing its brightest star ranking for 210,000 years.

What we see is a bit of an illusion because “Sirius” is a binary star system, consisting of a white main-sequence star, called Sirius A, and a faint white dwarf companion of called Sirius B. Sirius A is about twice as massive as the Sun and 25 times more luminous than the Sun. Sirius B was actually bigger but consumed its resources and became a red giant. Then, it shed its outer layers and collapsed into its current state as a white dwarf. That happened around 120 million years ago.

All this makes me feel both very tiny, and also part of something so large that I cannot really comprehend it all. So, I will simply go out tonight on this very cold night and look up at Sirius with great wonder.

 

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”
― Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

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By a commonly accepted definition, a supermoon has to come within 225,027 miles (362,146 km) of Earth.  They are not that rare and happen every few months. The Full Moons January 1 and 31, 2018, count as supermoons, and we can call the January 31 Moon a Blue Moon (a second in the same month).

It is a rarer occurrence that the new year is bookended by Full Moons on the first and last day and that both are “supermoons.” That popularized term is used to describe a new or full moon that occurs at roughly the same time the moon is nearest Earth (perigee) in its monthly orbit.

This New Year’s Day Full Moon is most often called the Wolf Moon, which is not a name that feels optimistic.

Why even give the Full Moons names?  That’s simple to answer. From the ancients through many other groups, including the early Native Americans, months didn’t exist because they didn’t use a Julian or Gregorian calendar. People gave each full moon a nickname to keep track of the seasons and lunar months. Lunar calendars came into being and are still used. The Moon’s phases are easier to observe than solar movements, but they are more variable.

Lunar Calendar by Fernando de GorocicaOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Most of the Full Moon names relate to an activity or an event that took place at the time in each location, so names are often both cultural and geographically bound. Your “Snow Moon” may well be quite warm and snow-free. Some groups  counted four seasons a year while others counted five, and some defined a year as 12 moons, while others said there were 13. Colonial Americans adopted some of the Native American names and so they were written down and still survive.

For January, “Wolf Moon” was used in Europe as well as here in America, but other European names included Ice Moon and Old Moon. Still, I was searching for a more optimistic January Moon name after a personally and nationally tough 2017.

There is the Chinese Holiday Moon, the Moon After the Yule and the Celtic Quiet (Quite) Moon which all sound kinder. But the new name I settled on for this year’s post is from New Guinea – the Rainbow Fish Moon. That calendar does not follow our months but this is the name listed for January’s Full Moon.

I could not find why this little fish is associated with this time. Does it spawn now or appear in greater numbers? Anyone from New Guinea reading this post who can comment?

There is a children’s book, The Rainbow Fish, that is new to me but apparently a very popular book. It has eye-catching foil stamping  illustrations that glitter on every page. The story is  about a beautiful fish who learns to make friends by sharing his most prized possessions and about individualism. Good messages, though it seems that has been interpreted differently by some.

The story was made into an animated television series of the same name.

And if you are reading this in the Southern Hemisphere, are you calling this the Hay Moon, Buck Moon, Thunder Moon, or Mead Moon? Post a comment!

You may be one of those to sing a few lines of “Auld Lang Syne” (“s” not “z”) tonight.  This Scottish folk song was popularized by poet Robert Burns who added some lines of his own.

By way of an episode of FT Arts podcast, The Life of a Song: Auld Lang Syne, I learned a lot about that song.

We don’t sing the melody Burns originally intended. And this odd ballad is as much about reunions as it is about separations. Auld lang syne (the phrase) is associated with year’s end. And the song is used to signal closing time in Japanese department stores.

The song’s title may be translated into English as “old long since” – or “long long ago”, “days gone by” or “old times”. “For auld lang syne”, as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as “for the sake of old times.”

Dan Fogelberg reprises the melody at the end of his hit song, “Same Old Lang Syne” and there are plenty of popular covers of the song.

In Scotland, New Year’s Eve marks the first day of Hogmanay. The name is derived from an Old French word for a gift given at the New Year. One Hogmanay tradition is “first-footing.” If the first person to cross your threshold after midnight is a dark-haired man, you will have good luck in the coming year.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new
Ring, happy bells, across the snow
The year is going, let him go
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson

 

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