Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we call the closest full moon to the autumn equinox the Harvest Moon. In 2017, the September equinox comes on September 22. And full moon comes much earlier in the month, on the night of September 5-6 for the Americas. Is the September 5-6 full moon the Harvest Moon? Or is the only true Harvest Moon for the the Northern Hemisphere the full moon of October 5, which is, in fact, the closest full moon to our autumn equinox? Follow the links below to learn more.
What is a Harvest Moon? In skylore, the Harvest Moon is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. Depending on the year, the Harvest Moon – by the usual definition of that name – can come anywhere from two weeks before to two weeks after the autumn equinox.
Harvest Moon is just a name. But this full moon does have special characteristics, related to the time of moonrise. Nature is particularly cooperative in giving us full-looking moons near the horizon after sunset, for several evenings in a row, around the time of the Harvest Moon.
Here’s what happens. On average, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day. But when a full moon happens close to the autumn equinox, the moon (at mid-temperate latitudes) rises only about 30 to 35 minutes later daily for several days before and after the full Harvest moon. For very high northern latitudes, there’s even less time between successive moonrises. It happens because the ecliptic – or the moon’s orbital path – makes a narrow angle with the evening horizon near the autumn equinox.
The difference between 50 minutes and 35 minutes may not seem like much. But it means that, in the nights after the full Harvest Moon, you’ll see the moon ascending in the east relatively soon after sunset. The moon will rise during or near twilight on these nights, making it seem as if there are several full moons – for a few nights in a row – around the time of the Harvest Moon.
Because the moon’s orbit around Earth isn’t a perfect circle, the distance of the Harvest Moon is a bit different every year. But the 2017 Harvest Moon does not count as a bigger-than-average full moon. Instead, the moon’s perigee for September is the 13th; for October, it’s the 9th. The September and October full moons aren’t particularly close full moons.
Still, in any year, you might think the Harvest Moon looks bigger or brighter or more orange. That’s because the Harvest Moon has such a powerful mystique. Many people look for it shortly after sunset around the time of full moon. After sunset around any full moon, the moon will always be near the horizon. It’ll just have risen. It’s the location of the moon near the horizon that causes the Harvest Moon – or any full moon – to look big and orange in color.
The orange color of a moon near the horizon is a true physical effect. It stems from the fact that – when you look toward the horizon – you are looking through a greater thickness of Earth’s atmosphere than when you gaze up and overhead. The atmosphere scatters blue light – that’s why the sky looks blue. The greater thickness of atmosphere in the direction of a horizon scatters blue light most effectively, but it lets red light pass through to your eyes. So a moon near the horizon takes on a yellow or orange or reddish hue.
The bigger-than-usual size of a moon seen near the horizon is something else entirely. It’s a trick that your eyes are playing – an illusion – called the Moon Illusion. You can find many lengthy explanations of the Moon Illusion by doing an online search for those words yourself.
When is the Harvest Moon in 2017? More often than not, the September full moon is the Northern Hemisphere’s Harvest Moon. The Harvest Moon is usually defined as the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, which – in the Northern Hemisphere – comes on or near September 22 each year.
2016’s Harvest Moon fell in September. 2018’s Harvest Moon will, too.
But, in 2017, the September 6 full moon comes too early to be the Northern Hemisphere’s official Harvest Moon, according to the most widely accepted definition of the term. That’s because the full moon of October 5, 2017, will fall closer to this year’s September 22 equinox. The October 2017 full moon will be this year’s Harvest Moon, while the September 5-6 full moon will carry its ordinary monthly full moon name of Fruit Moon in the Northern Hemisphere (and Worm Moon, Lenten Moon, Crow Moon, Sugar Moon, Chaste Moon or Sap Moon in the Southern Hemisphere). Read more about full moon names.
However, in most respects, the September 2017 and October 2017 full moons can be regarded as Harvest Moon co-stars. By that we mean that both have the characteristics of a Harvest Moon. The primary Harvest Moon characteristic has to do with the moonrise. On the average, the moon rises some 50 minutes later with each passing day. Around the time of the full Harvest Moon, the lag time between successive moonrises is reduced to a yearly low.
In 2017, there’s no appreciable difference between the lag in moonrise times associated with September and October full moons. In both of these months, the moon rises a shorter-than-usual time after sunset for several evenings in a row, following the date of full moon.
How did the Harvest Moon get its name? The shorter-than-usual lag time between moonrises around the full Harvest Moon means no long period of darkness between sunset and moonrise for days in succession.
In the days before tractor lights, the lamp of the Harvest Moon helped farmers to gather their crops, despite the diminishing daylight hours. As the sun’s light faded in the west, the moon would soon rise in the east to illuminate the fields throughout the night.
Who named the Harvest Moon? That name probably sprang to the lips of farmers throughout the Northern Hemisphere, on autumn evenings, as the Harvest Moon aided in bringing in the crops.
The name was popularized in the early 20th century by the song below.
Shine On Harvest Moon
By Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth (1903)
Shine on, shine on harvest moon
Up in the sky,
I ain’t had no lovin’
Since January, February, June or July
Snow time ain’t no time to stay
Outdoors and spoon,
So shine on, shine on harvest moon,
For me and my gal.
And don’t miss this more recent version of the song by Leon Redbone.
When is the Southern Hemisphere’s Harvest Moon? For the Southern Hemisphere, the autumn equinox falls in March. So the Southern Hemisphere always has a full moon with these same characteristics – rising shortly after sunset for several nights in a row – in March or April.
What are some other full moon names? Every full moon has a name. The names vary in cultures around the world, and they particularly vary between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. One of the most famous full moon names – other than Harvest Moon – is Hunter’s Moon. That’s the name for the full moon after the Harvest Moon. For the Northern Hemisphere, this year’s Hunter’s Moon comes on October 16. Read more about full moon names here.
Bottom line: According to folklore, the closest full moon to the autumn equinox is the Harvest Moon. In 2017, the autumnal equinox for the Northern Hemisphere comes on September 22. So this hemisphere’s Harvest Moon is the full moon of October 5. But many will call the full moon on the night of September 5-6 a Harvest Moon, too. Indeed, the September 2017 full moon shares the characteristics of a Harvest Moon.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.