Thursday, December 31, 2009

Once in a Blue Moon New Year's Eve

I was surprised to learn that several of my friends were not familiar with the modern-day definition of a 'blue moon' which will be ... tonight - New Year's Eve!

So I did some searching and came up with this article by Dr. Tony Phillips at www.science.nasa.gov. It's a nice explanation of the historical use of the phrase 'once in a blue moon.' I hope you enjoy it - and your 'once in a blue moon New Year's Eve!'

Happy New Year!

Party planners take note. For the first time in almost twenty years, there's going to be a Blue Moon on New Year's Eve.

"I remember the last time this happened," says professor Philip Hiscock of the Dept. of Folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. "December 1990 ended with a Blue Moon, and many New Year's Eve parties were themed by the event. It was a lot of fun."

Don't expect the Moon to actually turn blue, though. "The 'Blue Moon' is a creature of folklore," he explains. "It's the second full Moon in a calendar month."

Most months have only one full Moon. The 29.5-day cadence of the lunar cycle matches up almost perfectly with the 28- to 31-day length of calendar months. Indeed, the word "month" comes from "Moon." Occasionally, however, the one-to-one correspondence breaks down when two full Moons squeeze into a single month. Dec. 2009 is such a month. The first full Moon appeared on Dec. 2nd; the second, a "Blue Moon," will come on Dec. 31st.

This definition of Blue Moon is relatively new.

If you told a person in Shakespeare's day that something happens "once in a Blue Moon" they would attach no astronomical meaning to the statement. Blue moon simply meant rare or absurd, like making a date for the Twelfth of Never. "But meaning is a slippery substance," says Hiscock. "The phrase 'Blue Moon' has been around for more than 400 years, and during that time its meaning has shifted."

The modern definition sprang up in the 1940s. In those days, the Farmer's Almanac of Maine offered a definition of Blue Moon so convoluted that even professional astronomers struggled to understand it. It involved factors such as the ecclesiastical dates of Easter and Lent, and the timing of seasons according to the dynamical mean sun. Aiming to explain blue moons to the layman, Sky & Telescope published an article in 1946 entitled "Once in a Blue Moon." The author James Hugh Pruett cited the 1937 Maine almanac and opined that the "second [full moon] in a month, so I interpret it, is called Blue Moon."

That was not correct, but at least it could be understood. And thus the modern Blue Moon was born.

Blue moon has other connotations, too. In music, it's often a symbol of melancholy. According to one Elvis tune, it means "without a love of my own." On the bright side, he croons in another song, a simple kiss can turn a Blue Moon pure gold.

The modern astronomical Blue Moon occurs in some month every 2.5 years, on average. A Blue Moon falling precisely on Dec. 31st, however, is much more unusual. The last time it happened was in 1990, and the next time won't be until 2028.

So cue up that old Elvis record and "enjoy the extra moonlight on New Year's Eve," says Hiscock. "It only happens once in a Blue Moon."

6 comments:

skeeter1107 said...

Yehaw Maggie,

Frankly I'm somewhat surprised you left off Bill Monroe. "Blue Moon of Kentucky." As a fellow transplanted Tennessean, it is a glaring and obvious oversight on your part. The Ohioans never would have thought about it.

But nary a worry. I'm going to contact your kin so that they can re-culture you when you go "down home" again. If it's going to be awhile before you go, I'll meet you at the Cracker Barrel for some beans and greens.

I wish you and your "kin" a happy holiday.

Victoria Kamm said...

The best to you and yours Maggie! A blue moon is a wonderful way to start the new year!!!

Maggie Thurber said...

Thanks, Victoria - and you as well!!!

Maggie Thurber said...

Well, Skeeter, I'm properly chasitised and will sit in the penalty box for 1 minute and feel great shame...

As for beans and greens, I'm up for those any time!

BTW - we ARE having blackeyed peas, greens and corn bread for New Year's Day!

capt lou said...

Maggie:

Happy New Year, & thanks for the "blue moon" refresher.Got any Collard Greens?

Maggie Thurber said...

Indeed, Lou...along with the black-eyed peas and corn bread that just came out of the oven.

Happy New Year to you and Judy and the rest of the clan!

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