Understanding the Lunar Calendar


I am going to go out on a limb here and try and explain the lunar calendar, for those of you who are following along in The Lunar Tao with me. As with many topics I write about, I am learning this stuff too so I am very open to your take on it if that helps us all to understand it better. I did get a question though about how to work with The Lunar Tao and I realized as I was answering the question that it might be worthwhile to explain this in a post for those of you who are not all that familiar with the lunar calendar.

The lunar calendar is totally different from our Western calendar. Our “Western” months are kinda wonky, some months have 30 days, some 31, some 28 or 29. The weeks are never consistent either. The days are strange because there are 365.25 days in a year, so we add a leap year every four years to make up for it and we are still off.

The lunar calendar, on the other hand, is more precise.

Each month is about 30 days. Each “week” (approximately 7.5 days) marks a quarter phase of the moon and each new moon (or month) is marked by, well, a new moon. The lunar year, according to the Chinese, is exactly 360 days. In The Lunar Tao, he accounts for our extra five days with a few chapters at the end if you want to follow it all the way through the year. In the Chinese language, the word for month and the word for moon are the same character.

I did an interview once with a wonderful woman who spent some time living by the 13 moon lunar calendar. You can read her story in our interview here. (It’s a few years old, but fun to read anyways.) The full audio interview can be listened to here:

You may have noticed that she mentions a 13 moon cycle, which relates to a 28 days lunar month. Although the tracking of exact “months” is imprecise, the equinoxes and the solstices are very exact and these are what has helped us to tell time since time began here on Earth. So regardless of whether you follow a 28 day lunar cycle or a 30 day lunar cycle, what matters is not the number of days in a lunar month (which are subjective) but rather the cycles of the moon, which are constant and indisputable. When we used to track time by the patterns of the Moon, the days did not matter. The only thing that mattered was the position of the Moon in the sky, which is always correct.

The thing that I love about the 30 day lunar cycle is that it makes a year 360 days. In a circle, you have 360 degrees so this makes the math super simple since we are used to thinking in that way. 90 degrees is a season. If you look up at our Big Dipper clock, you can see that our friendly Big Dipper helps us to know the seasons as well by the direction it is pointing at midnight. Back before electricity lit up our nights, this was probably a well known fact. We’ve just lost sight of it due to our staying warm indoors in the wintertime and turning on some lights. We’ve forgotten.

Our bodies haven’t forgotten, though. Women used to menstruate by the lunar cycles just like the tides. In some ways, this may be a good thing that we don’t always follow these patterns anymore or there might be a run on tampons at the local Target store around the full moon. Why don’t we follow these patterns anymore? Because our bodies are confused by the lights in our homes and by our crazy sleep patterns that no longer follow the light of the Sun and the Moon. As with so many things that we have modified to suit our whims, we have modified the very biorhythms of our bodies.

Have you ever been tent camping for more than a weekend? If so, you may have noticed that you fall into a new sleeping pattern. You don’t look at your watch or your cell phone as much but you begin to follow the light of the day to determine your patterns. This is natural. As it gets dark, you may stay up for a while because your body clock is used to staying up until 10 PM and watching television but you may find yourself going to bed earlier and getting up earlier on the later days of your camping trip as your body adjusts to the new light patterns.

What I am talking about here are daily light patterns. We also have yearly patterns. We have the patterns of winter, with less light so we sleep more. Bears hibernate. In the olden days, there wasn’t much to do in the winter because they could not tend to their crops so they probably slept more. This is a natural pattern of winter. Once again, we have disturbed this pattern by using lights and alarm clocks to keep getting up to fight that 7 AM traffic Monday through Friday.

This is why women no longer menstruate with the full moon.

Although we may have messed with our internal clocks, our bodies have not forgotten. We crave a natural rhythm. This is why we have so much stress in our lives. We are creating stress in our bodies when we go against this natural rhythm. How do we correct this?  We try to follow the rhythms of nature. We observe the sky and notice when the moon is growing full. This is a monthly pattern of gaining momentum. We could notice when the moon is losing its fullness, this is a time for taking stock of projects and preparing for the next big thing. It is also a time for reviewing what you learned from past mistakes.

If you are interested in this topic, follow with me through The Lunar Tao this year. We will be talking about these patterns throughout this year on this blog. I would love to have you join me! If you are familiar with the lunar patterns, tell us about what you’ve learned in the comments. We would love to hear from you!



  1. This is a very helpful explanation Amy. And while I’ve long used the 13-moon cycle as my navigation, I really do love the symmetry of the Chinese system. And I particularly like the correlation to degrees in a circle – that’s a very handy way of thinking about it. I look forward to your continued discussions as you explore this topic throughout the year!
    Deborah Weber recently posted…Love: I is for…My Profile

  2. Amy- such an interesting topic you have brought up here. It is amazing how our modern ways has disrupted our natural rhythms. You have described the lunar calendar in a very clear manner and easy to follow. I will have to keep up with your upcoming posts to hear more.
    Sue recently posted…Comment on What’s in a name? by SueMy Profile

  3. Judaism follows the lunar calendar as well, and each holiday takes place on a full moon, which is something I personally love. Reading your post helped me figure out more of the math behind it. It makes so much sense!
    Naomi recently posted…Soulful home: a warm welcome (February prompt)My Profile

  4. Amy, Thank you for this well-written and informative article. I was wondering if you are going to write about lunar leap years. I know what they are and why we need them (12 lunar cycles come out a few days short of one solar cycle); and that rather than adding a day, the calendar has to add a whole extra month. More interesting, I think, is how they are determined and how they are perceived. For instance, I believe this is a leap year for the Jewish calendar, while on the Chinese calendar there was a leap year in 2012 and the next one is coming in 2016 – which is the same as the Western calendar, but that is not always the case. I think that in China, a leap year is considered a good year for marriage, but a year in which there is a greater chance of dying (perhaps because it simply lasts longer). It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the deeper meanings of these systems and beliefs, if you are so inclined.
    Louis Weltzer recently posted…CHAPTER 38 – OUTSIDE THE LAWMy Profile

    • Thanks for the info on the leap years, Louis. I will have to look into that and maybe do another post on that. I welcome anyone to chime in on what they know!

  5. I completely agree with you about our bodies now being confused because of the artificial lighting of our nights. We removed the clocks from all rooms except the kitchen and try, as much as possible, to just move with the natural rhythms. It’s pretty surprising when we discover that we went to bed at 8:30! But, that’s when we were tired. Of course, we always wake up right before sunrise.
    Linda Watson recently posted…A Sunset Silence WalkaboutMy Profile

  6. Amy, what a wonderful article. 🙂 I’m going to put a link to this in my article about the full for everyone to read. I think it will be very beneficial knowledge to add to what I work with in shamanism. I of course, love the moon and have for a very long time worked with what you’ve described about living your day with the light and the night. We can try to fool mother natures internal bearings for us. But, no matter what, in the end she will win. We are being forced back to her more and more to keep grounded and sane. 🙂

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