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Time and Again, Ad Infinitum: Is This The New Millennium, Or What?, Part 2

(Time and Again . . . )

Almost everyone in our world uses the Gregorian Calendar to plan their daily lives. At least, in respect to civic affairs. It hangs on walls, is coded inside watches, and is most likely embedded in countless silicon chips that help process the prose, light the lights, cook the dinner, ring the telephones, keep bank balances, calculate taxes, tell the children when to go to school and the elders when to retire. Of course, the Y2K bug may be munching away on this embedded intelligence and decide to join us shortly after we begin our premature celebration. We’ll see. Won’t we? But that is a calendric issue of a different sort.

In the Jewish calendar, my Friday the 13th is called the 24th of Cheshvan in the year 5759. The Islamic Calendar shows the same date as the 23rd of Rajab-Sha‘ban, 1419. The date in the Chinese Calendar falls on the Day of the Rat, Month of the Sheep, Year of the Earth-Tiger, 4696. My neighborhood astronomer assures me it’s Julian Day number: 2451131. Don’t confuse this date with the old Julian Calendar established by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., which was the one the Gregorian Calendar replaced in 1582. It just so happens that Joseph Justus Scaliger, who invented the “Julian Day” in 1583, had a dad named Julius.

Yep. As you can see, the Field of Calendics is an exacting science and getting weirder by the moment. No doubt, in the coming year, we’ll be flooded with trivia about the oddities of Calendars and their convoluted history. Who knows? Maybe, we’ll get a reprieve from media’s preoccupation with the President’s amorous predilections.

Calendar reforms, ad infinitum. Reform is a way of life for Calendrics. The stated reason for most reforms is a need for increased accuracy. Or more precisely, a need for the type of accuracy considered popular at the time. While calendars are usually tied to the exact movements of the Sun, the Moon, or both, they must satisfy other obligations, as well.

The Gregorian Calendar is tied to the length of the Earth’s solar year. Thanks to the Romans. They calculated it took the Earth 365 1/4 days to go around the Sun. Actually, they didn’t do the calculation themselves. They appropriated it from the Egyptians who were using it for thousands of years. Some think the Pharaohs appropriated it from somewhere else. Calendars go way back. Thus, the year was declared to be 365 days long and in order to make up for the missing 1/4 day the Romans added a day every fourth year. Leap Year.

This seemed to work great, but there was a tiny problem. The year isn’t exactly 365.25 days long. It’s shorter. Which made their calendar off by 11 minutes per year. The error was so small it didn’t create a problem for about 1500 years. But then the Catholic Church noticed that Easter was beginning to occur earlier and earlier in March. By the time the 16th century rolled in, Easter was falling on March 11th. Since the Church had prescribed Springtime as Easter’s rightful position, Pope Gregory XIII felt compelled to replace the Julian Calendar to stop Easter’s slipping further into Winter.

In order to correct the accumulated error, the Pope declared that 10 days would be dropped. Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. This didn’t sit right with everyone. Some Protestant countries took years, even centuries before they accepted it. Even in a few Catholic countries there was rioting in the streets because some people thought he had just shortened their lives by ten days. But he created a very accurate calendar by subtracting these 10 days and adding an additional rule that only centennial years that were multiples of 400 would be leap years. Only 6 days off in 10,000 years! Under this rule 1900 was not a leap year. But the year 2000 is.

Hidden agendas beneath the numbers Numbers may be fascinating, but if we play the game of calendrics only by the numbers, we run the risk of missing a very important function of calendars. Much of the energy to develop and refine calendars comes from a desire to influence how the Universe is perceived. There can be a definite advantage for those giving names to times of significant astronomical events. Events that mark the change of Seasons are pivotal moments in human culture. Even getting others to accept your right as name-giver confers advantage in directing how others perceive time.

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