As cold and snow strive to dominate the scene around New York Harbor, many early Native American groups of the northeast called January the “Full Wolf Moon.” During this cold, dark period, hungry wolves were more likely to forage for food in local villages and compete with humans for deer and other prey. Native American people would have also heard the wolves howling loudly in the dead silence of winter.
American Indians gave names to each of the full moons to keep track of the seasons and each passing month. The names were associated with the time until the next full moon occurred.
For many early native people, January was a time when cold took its toll. The Algonquin people of the northeast and Great Lakes, the January full moon was known as the “sun has not strength to thaw.” The Cherokee called it the “Full Cold Moon.” To the Lakota of the Northern Plains, it was the “Hard Moon” and it was “the Big Cold” moon to the Mohawk of eastern woodlands.
My absolute favorite name comes from the Lenape people, our local native group in much of southern New York and all of New Jersey. They called the January full moon the “Cracking Tree Moon.” It’s a name that refers to heavy snow and the blustery cold winds of winter. Together they that can snap tree branches and break the limbs of trees in two.
This was often a time of hunger; starvation was a real possibility. Deep anxiety existed, as people, who were utterly dependent on the natural world for their supplies, waited anxiously for spring.
Even now, January is anxious and anticipating time for many people, waiting for spring. Some will retreat indoors, as freezing temperatures and one storm after another ploughs across the coast. The confinement and darkness can incite fears in people, especially during a full moon.
Although the cold and darkness of January can be forbidding, for early coastal Lenape people life went on. Men went fishing for winter flounder when waters were not too rough, or went hunting inland for land animals, especially deer and turkeys. Women took advantage of low tides to gather clams, mussels, and oysters.
For the Lenape people, winter was a time for looking towards the future. They didn’t control the weather, so why worry too much about it. It’s best just to take one day at a time. One Lenape legend entitled, “The Four Directions,” tells the story about the origin of winter weather. The story goes like this:
"When the Creator was finished making the earth, he gave responsibility for the four quarters of the earth to four powerful beings, or mani'towuk. Their duty was to take care of these regions. These beings caused the winds to blow from different directions, and are responsible for other phenomena as well. Winter is the result of a game of bowl and dice between the mani'towuk of the north and the mani'towuk of the south. When it is cold for a long time and the winds blow fiercely, it is the result of the successes of the mani'towuk of the north in the game. These mani'towuk are called Grandfather at the East, Grandmother at the South, Grandfather at the West, and Grandfather at the North. Each year their story is told, and people who gather herbs or prepare medicines pray to them and offer tobacco."
Winter means different things to different people. But for many Native Americans, the January moon provides brilliant light in a time of darkness and a time when we can see an entire side of the moon. The January full moon is always a compelling event, as it was in the past as it is in our modern society.