Calendars through the ages - The Date Today
“Most modern calendars mar the sweet simplicity of our lives by reminding us that each day that passes is the anniversary of some perfectly uninteresting event.” Oscar Wilde
The calendar we use today is called the Gregorian calendar. It is the direct result of changes made in 1582 A.D. by Pope Gregory XIII to the Julian calendar that was in use up to that time. By the time Gregory became Pope, church holidays, like Easter and seasonal plantings were no longer in synch with their appropriate seasons because the Julian calendar was recording dates a full ten days ahead of the actual time of the year. Gregory’s remedy for this was to simply eliminate ten days from the calendar to catch up. He issued a papal bull to that effect stating that in 1582 the day after October 5th would be October 14th. Gregory and his advisors had determined that the Julian calendar overestimated the solar year, each year, by 11 minutes and 14 seconds, which is what accounted for the excess of ten days. His new calendar operated on the assumption that a year was 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 20 seconds long. The 11 minutes gained each year by the Julian system resulted from assuming that a year is exactly 365 days and 6 hours in length. Not even the Gregorian calendar is perfect, however. It is off the mark by 25.96768 seconds every year, which has resulted in the pile up of 2 hours, 59 minutes, and 12 seconds of extra time in the 414 years since it was established (Duncan). By 4909 A.D., if things continued the way they have been for the past few millennia, the Gregorian calendar will end up being a full day ahead.
The Gregorian calendar was the first calendar to really gain international acceptance. Most Catholic countries accepted it before 1584. In Protestant Germany, full recognition wasn’t achieved until 1775, though they partially acknowledged it as early as 1700. In Britain and the American colonies, it was adopted in 1752. Japan held off until 1873, and China until 1949. The Eastern Orthodox Church voted, as recently as 1971, to continue using the Julian calendar and to ignore the Gregorian one, which is a practice still followed to this day.
Just because these countries have accepted the Gregorian calendar, that does not mean the system they were using beforehand vanished. Many different cultures still utilize their own calendars within their own national borders. The Hebrew Calendar, which is still the official calendar of Israel, is an example of this. It is a lunisolar calendar that consists of months of either 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new moon, or Molad, occurs. The names of the Jewish months are Tishri, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Elul. The only day of the week that has a name is the Sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. All other days of the week are merely labeled with numbers. In an ordinary, complete year, the Hebrew calendar consists of 355 days. In a leap year it has 385 days, and thirteen months instead of twelve.
The Islamic calendar is purely lunar, and for religious purposes, each month begins at the sighting of the lunar crescent after the New Moon. Days begin at sunset on the previous day. The Islamic months are known as Muharram, Safar, Rabi’a I, Rabi’a II, Jumada I, Jumada II, Rajeb, Sha’ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Q’adah, and Dhu al-Hijjah. Muharram, Rajab, Dhu al-Q’adah and Dhu al-Hijjah are holy months, and Ramadan is a month of fasting.
Although the Indian calendar underwent changes in 1957 and is now inline with the Gregorian calendar as far as leap years are concerned, it still has its own months that originate from the Saka Era, a traditional epoch. The first Indian month, Caitra, begins on March 22nd, followed by a succession of 11 either 30 or 31 day months. These are Vaisakha, Jyaistha, Asadha, Sravana, Bhadra, Asvina, Kartika, Agrahayana, Pausa, Magha, and Phalguna. Many local regions in India still maintain their own calendars, despite attempts at unification. When reform was first introduced, there were 30 different calendars circulating around the country, making the history of the Indian calendar one of the most complex in the world.
The Chinese calendar may be the most well known of all culturally based calendars. It is preserved and used not only throughout the traditional Chinese countryside, but also in numerous Chinese communities around the world. This system has a cycle of sixty years which is created by matching one of its ten celestial stems with one of its twelve terrestrial branches.
The ten stems are associated with five elements: stems 1 & 2 = wood; stems 3 & 4 = fire; stems 5 & 6 = earth; stems 7 & 8 = metal; stems 9 & 10 = water.
Each terrestrial branch represents a year and each year is named after an animal. The twelve terrestrial branches are zi (rat), chou (ox), yin (tiger), mao (hare), chen (dragon), si (snake), wu (horse), wei (sheep), shen (monkey), you (fowl), xu (dog), and hai (pig).
To help demonstrate how this 60-year cycle operates, lets match stems with their appropriate branch and denote each by their corresponding numbers as follows:
Year x = (stem, branch)
Year 1 = (1, 1) = (wood, rat)
Year 2 = (2, 2) = (wood, ox)
Year 3 = (3, 3) = (fire, tiger)
. . .
Year 10 = (10, 10) = (water, fowl)
Year 11 = (1, 11) = (wood, dog) (you recycle stems when you run out of them)
Year 12 = (2,12) = (wood, pig)
Year 13 = (3, 1) = (fire, rat) (we continue in this manner going through 6 cycles of stems Year 14 = (4, 2) = (fire, ox) and 5 cycles of branches for a total of 60 years)
. . .
Year 60 = (10,12) = (water, pig)
The stems repeat six times and the branches repeat five times in a 60-year cycle. The initial year, jia-zi, of the current 60-year cycle began most recently in February of 1984. 2007 is consequently year 24 in the cycle = (4,12) = (fire, pig) and is referred to as the year of the pig.
In addition to months, this calendar also has “terms,” that usually, but not always, correspond with the twelve months in the year. There are principle and secondary terms that have an average length of thirty days. The principle ones are Rain Water, Spring Equinox, Grain Rain, Grain Full, Summer Solstice, Great Heat, Limit of Heat, Autumnal Equinox, Descent of Frost, Slight Snow, Winter Solstice, and Great Cold.
Even though the Gregorian calendar is widely accepted throughout the world, it is not universally accepted. Many cultures still cling to their own calendars for spiritual or historical purposes. Examples of the differences in different cultural calendars can be seen in the following list from David Duncan’s Calendar which indicates the year that correlates to 2000 AD for those who are not living under the Gregorian calendar.
According to Christ’s actual birth, it was 1997.
According to the old Roman calendar, it was 2753.
According to the ancient Babylonian calendar, it was 2749.
According to the first Egyptian calendar, it was 6236.
According to the Jewish calendar, it was 5760.
According to the Moslem calendar, it was 1420.
According to the Coptic calendar, it was 1716.
According to the Buddhist calendar, it was 2544.
According to the current Maya great cycle, it was 5119.
According to the calendar of the French Revolution, it was 208.
According to the Chinese calendar, it was the year of the Dragon.
- Doggett, L. E. “Calendars.” With permission from University Science Books, CA. 5 Feb 2007.
- Duncan, David Ewing. Calendar. NY: Avon Books, 1998.
- Burns, Marilyn. This Book Is About Time. NY: Yolla Bolly Press, 1978.