January Teacher Resource Guide

January, the coldest month of the year in the northern hemisphere, is a time when many people usually stay indoors as much as they can and try to stay warm. It might seem that a very cold month like this would not have anything interesting about it, but this impression would be wrong. Even the most frigid month has some strange facts and fascinating things to learn about it.

The name of January itself has an interesting origin - it comes from Janus, the name of a Roman god from antiquity. Janus, the god of doorways and boundaries, had two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back, because a door also faces in both directions at the same time. His name was thought appropriate for the first month of the year, both because it is the "doorway" into the new year and because it is a time when people look back over the year they just went through, and forward towards the new year that's just beginning.

Other people had different names for January than the Romans had. The most unusual of these was the Saxon name - Wulfmonath - or "Wolf Month." They called the month this because by this time in the winter, the wolves in the forests were having a lot of trouble finding food. Driven by cold and hunger, they would enter human villages to try to steal chickens, pigs, geese, and other farm animals. Since wolves are dangerous animals when they are hungry, the Saxons noticed their presence close to people's homes as one of the major yearly events of January.

January also witnesses some strange temperature events. For one thing, even though it is bitterly cold and snowy in the northern hemisphere, with icicles hanging from the eaves like sparkling teeth and roads often slippery and hazardous, this month is the height of summer in the southern hemisphere (the half of the Earth south of the equator). While people in the north are shivering in coats and mittens, Australians and South Africans are putting on their swimming trunks and heading to the beach.

Another strange detail about the temperatures in January comes with the "January thaw." This is a warmer period that comes towards the end of the month, and may see temperatures 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the temperatures before or after it. This is a welcome break from the point of view of most people, but in scientific terms, it comes at the wrong time. By scientific measurements of the Earth's climate, the January thaw should come at the start of the month, but instead, it comes at the end - nobody knows why.

You might think that the warmer months would be the best time for birds to lay their eggs and hatch their babies, and in most cases, you would be right. But the Great Horned Owl - once of the fiercest owls in America - start laying their eggs in late January, when the trees are still bare except for snow and the owls need to sit on the eggs constantly so they will not freeze. Scientists think this is so that the babies hatch out in time plenty of food with the return of life in Spring, when there are many rabbits, rodents, and not too many hawks around to compete for them. However, other owls do just fine nesting later, so the Great Horned Owl is still a very strange bird.

As you can see, although January is one of the coldest months in the north, and a time when people avoid going outside as much as they can, there are still plenty of fascinating things to learn about it and plenty of events going on in the natural world.

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