Establishing The Calendar

What’s the date today? Answer: It depends.

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Back in the dawn of time, when man settled down, stopped being a nomad and wanted to plant crops, it became important to be able to measure time. When was the right time to plant crops and to harvest? When could the rains be expected to come? When would the first frost come? It was no longer good enough to trust doing the happy rain dance or to pray to some gods. It was better to know and understand the patterns, the averages and the amount by which things could vary. Everything depended on establishing a calendar!

Just like with everything else, there was some trial and error. Probably a lot more on the error side in the early days, but over time, things began to settle down. What we are left with has some interesting anomalies about it.

The calendars followed by western societies use the spring equinox as an anchor. Today – we call that March 21st. The problem is that they didn’t fully understand what a year was and so by 1582, the spring equinox happened on March 11th. Pope Gregory XIII decided that something had to be done about this. Presumably the wine production in the monasteries was dwindling and the calendar was to blame. So that year he decreed that Oct. 5th through Oct. 14th would be deleted. That’s also when they changed the length of a year to 365.2425 days. Can you imagine going to bed October 4th and being told it was October 15th when you woke up? Can you imagine the accounting screw-ups that result from that? And we think we had problems with the year 2000!

The next interesting question is why do we call the day of the spring equinox March 21st? Should that not be January 1st? In the Julian calendar, March 21st was indeed January 1st. The Christians didn’t like this very much because it had no religious significance and so Pope Gregory moved it to where it is today. Thankfully they didn’t keep moving it when they realized that all of their historical dates were wrong. This would have meant that the scriptures were inaccurate and they could never admit to that.

Within Europe, not everyone was Christian, and not all Christians followed what the Pope said. This meant that Europe had both time and date lines. Some countries couldn’t decide which they liked better, so they kept changing the calendar that they followed. As an example, Sweden adopted the Gregorian calendar but in 1600 switched back to the Julian calendar and then back to Gregorian again in 1753. This is clearly why the printed calendar business did not take off until more modern times and why the world was not yet ready for Hallmark!

Many of the months were named after gods, but they ran out gods that they wished to acknowledge and so the latter months of year (September, October, November and December) are just numbers (7,8,9 and 10). The problem is that these months were not moved when January 1st was moved, so now September (7) is the ninth month and December (10) the 12th month.


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  • Martin Vlach

    What is the week number? When does daylight savings time start? Which day is the first one of the week? (Sunday in the US, Monday in ISO 8601). It’s all a mystery.
    Live in the moment.

    • Brian Bailey

      @Martin – yes, someday I will have to do a ‘What were they thinking” about daylight savings, which itself has as many crazy events associated with it.

    • Brian Bailey

      @Martin – yes, someday I will have to do a ‘What were they thinking” about daylight savings, which itself has as many crazy events associated with it.