The Sky of December – Solar and Lunar Calendars

The name December comes from Latin, meaning the tenth. In ancient times, it was the tenth month from the beginning of the year, which was in March.

December for most of us is the time when we prepare to celebrate another rotation of Earth around the Sun together. Of course, while modern life’s standardization and globalisation sees more and more people adopting this convention, it was not always like that. Different cultures celebrate the new year at different times of the year.

The Romans and their ancestors, the Thracians, had their new year at the beginning of the spring. If I think about it, it makes sense, it’s the time when nature comes back to life. But what about a place where all is evergreen, like the North Island of New Zealand? Here in New Zealand, the Maori New Year is a Lunar celebration which occurs around the shortest day of the year. The shortest month of the year in this hemisphere occurs in June – July.

December on the other hand, is the month of beautiful red pohutukawa flowers – New Zealand’s Christmas tree, remembered in the arrival of the Maori ancestors when they gazed upon the land and witnessed its’ full bloom in action. Today the pohutakawa is associated with hot weather and parties on the beach, and Christmas, which is celebrated with barbecues and jandals. To someone who is used to four months of snow from November until February at minus 20 degrees Celsius, having Christmas in the summertime seemed a little odd to say the least.

And it got me thinking…
Where do calendars come from? What do people see when they look at the stars and the Moon and what do these celebrations mean for us in general? And what was their connection to the land? In the Northern and central Europe, there are four very distinct seasons. Summertime can get as hot as forty degrees celsius and wintertime can go to almost minus twenty. That is very cold. So why did they choose to live there? Maybe it was the abundance of food in the summertime? Maybe it was the beauty of the landscape? The truth is that they had to overcome four months of snow and freeze. How did they know how to provision their food to last until spring? They harvested grains in the summer and in autumn wine, the most important elixir, was on its way to the cellars. They needed to know when mid winter was so they could sacrifice their wild boars. Their meat would sustain the people until the beginning of the spring, which is where the saying ‘chewing the fat’ can be attributed to.

Sfinxul din Bucegi - Alex Conu

Winter solstice thus became the most important milestone for those people. How can you measure it? The Moon, big, round, and changing patterns once every 29 and a half days did not really help in figuring out the middle of the winter in that part of the world. There had to be a better way. This is why they have developed very precise sidereal calendars, in Thrace those were designed following the Saros cycle – a cycle that predicts solar and lunar eclipses.
Upside down Moon

Closer to the equator, the year is measured with lunisolar calendars. In the middle east the Muslims have a lunar calendar, their new year is marked by the Ramadan which is precisely calculated by the phases of the Moon. In the far east the Chinese have a lunar calendar too and they also use Jupiter to mark the time, which is why the Chinese zodiac is on a twelve-year cycle, exactly the time it takes Jupiter to move around the sun once. In India they also have a lunar calendar, Vedic astrology is based on the mansions of the moon, also known as nakshatras.

The lunar mansions once were very important in observational astronomy, especially in that of Saudi Arabia, China and India, and of Khiva – the ancient Khorasmia,  and Bokhara – the ancient Sogdiana, and it is believed that they originated from Euphratic valley, Coptic Egypt and Persia. The mansions were twenty seven, but usually twenty eight and possibly long antedated constellations or even the solar zodiac.Their antiquity is proved by the fact that there, and probably elsewhere, the list began with the Pleiades, when those stars marked the vernal equinox. The Pleiades that are so beautifully distinct and close to the ecliptic so that everyone who can see the sun and the moon can see the Pleiades too.

The Moon is very important around the tropics for measuring the time, as it should be. The first thing that my daughter saw in the sky was Luna, Marama, the Moon. It’s big, it’s easily seen and it has phases that inform many cultures about the passage of time. Truth is at the tropics the temperature is very hot compared to the northern and central Europe. People did not need to measure the middle of a frozen snowy wintertime with the precision of a surgeon like we did in Europe, but they did need to know when the tropical season begun bringing typhoons and other erratic weather patterns. This was done with the help of the Moon and certain groups of stars.

Equally ingenious is the Maori way of measuring the time. The Maori calendar is called Maramataka. Maramataka recognizes the phases of the Moon which such precision that each day has a designated name. It begins with the observance of the heliacal rising of Matariki (that we know as the Pleiades) in June following the new moon which marks the beginning of the Maori new year. In Maramataka each day has a name that also instructs on the activities that are prime to undertake: cultivate the lands, fish, or navigate across the ocean. The Maori realised that there was a direct link between the Moon and the tides, and planting and fishing were also very closely associated with them.

Maramataka - Eldson Best
Maramataka – Eldson Best

The Maori have a very special relationship with the Moon. They used the Moon and other celestial bodies to determine time through the year, which enabled the safety of their navigation across the oceans and the safe cultivation of their crops. The Moon in New Zealand is of a rare beauty, as it is birthed from the ocean, or it appears from behind the mountains. It appears also upside down to someone like me who is from the other side of the world.

One of our listeners told us that he is always watching the man in the Moon in the northern hemisphere (I remember watching him too) and he was curious what do we see in the southern hemisphere. In New Zealand, the Maori see Rona Whakamau Tai – Rona, the controller of the tides. One evening, Rona traveled down to the river to collect water but Marama (the Moon) disappeared behind the clouds and Rona cursed her. Marama heard the curse and said “why curse such beauty when you belong to it?” And lifted Rona up to become the woman of the Moon.
You can see her laying down after she tripped in the dark over the ngaio tree, with her water calabash behind her head, and the ngaio tree in front of her.

For me, I was told once by a school group that there is a rabbit in the Moon. I love the kids’ imagination and I always look for both the rabbit and Rona in the Moon.

The stars of December

The brightest true stars are in the east and south. Sirius, the brightest of all the stars, is due east at dusk, often twinkling like a diamond.  Left of it is the bright constellation of Orion. The line of three stars makes Orion’s belt in the classical constellation, with the bright stars Betelgeuse and Bellatrix forming his shoulders close to the horizon . To southern hemisphere skywatchers they make the bottom of ‘The Pot’.  The faint line of stars above and right of the three is the Pot’s handle. At its centre is the Orion Nebula, a glowing gas cloud nicely seen in binoculars.  Rigel, directly above the line of three stars, is a hot blue-giant star.  Orange Betelgeuse, below the line of three, is a cooler red-giant star.

Left of Orion is a triangular group making the upside down V of the Hyades. Orange Aldebaran is the brightest star in the V shape. Aldebaran is one of the four royal stars. These royal stars were regarded as the guardians of the sky in approximately 3,000 BCE during the time of the Ancient Persians in what is now modern day Iran.The Persians believed that the sky was divided into four districts with each district being guarded by one of the four Royal Stars.The royal stars held both good and evil power and the Persians asked them for guidance in scientific calculations of the sky, such as the calendar and lunar/solar cycles, and for predictions about the future. Other names for the Hyades were the little she-camels, and were forming the second Nakshatra, Rohini in Hindu astrology. Still further left is the Pleiades cluster, impressive when seen through binoculars. It is 440 light years* away. Pliny talked about them: In cauda Tauri septem quas appelavere Vergilias – at the tail of the bull Vergilias calls seven. The Pleiades seem to be among the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in Chinese annals of 2357 BC.

Canopus, the second brightest star, is high in the southeast.  Low in the south are the Pointers, Beta and Alpha Centauri, and Crux the Southern Cross. As we talked in the November Jodcast, end of November – beginning of December is is the time when the grand canoe of Tama Rereti is the sky. The bright southern Milky Way makes the waters in which the canoe is anchored,  with Crux being the canoe’s anchor hanging off the side. In this picture the Scorpion’s tail is be the canoe’s prow and the Clouds of Magellan are the sails. The Waka o Tama Rereti, the canoe of Tama Rereti marked the times when the waters were warm and safe enough for the Maori to sail back to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.

The Milky Way is wrapped around the horizon. The broadest part is in Sagittarius low in the west at dusk.  It narrows toward Crux in the south and becomes faint in the east below Orion. The Milky Way is our edgewise view of the galaxy, the pancake of billions of stars of which the sun is just one. The thick hub of the galaxy, 30 000 light years away, is in Sagittarius now low in the west. The nearby outer edge is the faint part of the Milky Way below Orion.   A scan along the Milky Way with binoculars will show many clusters of stars and a few glowing gas clouds.

The Clouds of Magellan, LMC and SMC, high in the southern sky, are two small galaxies respectively about 160 000 and 200 000 light years away. They are easily seen by the naked eye on a dark moonless night.  The larger cloud is about 1/20th the mass of the Milky Way galaxy, the smaller cloud 1/30th.

Fomalhaut, or Hastorang as it was known to the ancient Persians, is also one of the four royal stars , finding now its true home in the southern hemisphere. I remember watching it in awe from the northern hemisphere, as it was showing the secret passage to the south to those who knew how to read it.

Andromeda Galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy

Very low in the north is the Andromeda Galaxy seen in binoculars in a dark sky as a spindle of light.  It is a bit bigger than our Milky Way galaxy and nearly three million light years away.