13 September 2007

Wheels of Time

Calendar from Webster.com
Etymology: Middle English calender, from Anglo-French or Medieval Latin; Anglo-French kalender, from Medieval Latin kalendarium, from Latin, moneylender's account book, from kalendae calends
1 : a system for fixing the beginning, length, and divisions of the civil year and arranging days and longer divisions of time (as weeks and months) in a definite order -- see MONTH table

Reflections about the way human beings tell time have been with me this week. It began with a news story on BBC News about the country of Ethiopia celebrating their own version of Y2K seven years after the rest of us (cf. Why Ethiopia's Millennium is seven years late, by Elizabeth Blunt BBC News, Addis Ababa). I find it rather interesting that Ethopians so love their way of seeing the world, and believe so fervently in their own Christian traditions dating to ancient Coptic times, that they staunchly refused to celebrate the Millennium on 31 December 1999. Of course, I also know sticklers to the rule in the Western World who wouldn't actually believe we had entered the Third Millennium until 1 January 2001.

I can remember that I had a childhood preoccupation with calendars from many different cultures and studied clocks, watches and timepieces in coffee-table tomes in the library at a fairly early age. It probably began with my love of history and archaeology that I nurtured during those formative years. I had a flirtation with the idea of becoming an Egyptologist or scholar of Ancient Greece back then. My elementary school librarian reminded me a few years ago when we were reintroduced, that I was the little girl in Second Grade who had every book on Egypt, Greece and Rome checked out at some point. (Yes, I was a book nerd even then.) What I was hungry to learn centered around the fact that these cultures had different languages, different ways of viewing the world, different beliefs and religions. Among the array of differences about these ancient peoples I discovered for myself was their methods of telling time. The ancient Romans were very focused on conducting business. Maybe that is why we borrow the etymology for our word "calendar" from their word for the accountant's notebook. [See epigraph above.]

There's a hilarious cartoon about Druids at Stonehenge who are deciding what to do with the standing stone calendar they've just finished constructing by Tom Cheney from The New Yorker. It made me laugh because once human beings create a system, they cannot seem to let well enough allow and enjoy the invention. No, they always make their lives even more complicated by adding extra layers of minutiae, red tape, or rules. Calendars are not simple wheels of time, but rather the starting points for entire philosophies, religions, ways of conducting business, or exchanges of communication.

Case in point: in my working life I am a museum educator for a historic site. Annapolis was founded as Maryland's capital in the late seventeenth century and had it's heyday throughout the eighteenth century up to the War for Independence. England (and, thus it's colonies in the New World) adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 CE due to a parliamentary act known as An Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year; and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use. That means that anyone born before 1 January 1752, suddenly had a new birthdate thrust upon him/her. The new birthday would depend upon whether or not s/he was born before March 25th, the Christian holiday of the Feast of the Annunciation, which in England was the first day of the Civil (or Legal) Year. Famously, George Washington's birthday moved from 11 February to 22 February due to the change from the Old Style calendar to the New. Confused yet? [See resources below.]

To make matters more confusing, you and I need to decide what heavenly body will be the basis for our calendar. For people living in North America or Europe, the sun is likely the basis for your daily existence and days of conducting business. If you come from India, Jordan, or China, your dates may be based upon lunar cycles. The Feast of Easter, the height of the liturgical year for many Christians, is often calculated as the first Sunday from the full moon on or after the vernal equinox (21 March). This is why the movable feast of Easter dances around. It comes one year in April, but might sometimes appear in late March. If you are a farmer or gardener, you might be more concerned with the lunar calendar like the one in Farmer's Almanac. If you sail, kayak or live near a large body of water like the Chesapeake Bay, then the moon is also important to you because it affects coastal tides.

This is all to suggest that calendars are very arbitrary things by nature. The next time you make a lunch date with a friend or business meeting with an associate, think about the fact that there is a social contract to which you both must agree: not only a date and time, but also upon which calendar you are using.

By the way, Happy New Year today if you are Jewish. It's Rosh Hashanah (09/12/07 or Elul 1, 5767).

Do you have a favorite movable feast? Use a minority calendar? I welcome you to post your comments and ideas here.

Annotated Resources:
Learn more about the Old Style vs. New Style Calendar and how to make sense of dates around the year 1752 CE in a helpful article by Mike Spathaky written for genealogists.
Use Earth Calendar to find out what holidays are celebrated on any given date on the Gregorian Calendar.
See WebExhibits for more about the minutiae of the Western World's calendar: Definitions of Our Year, http://webexhibits.org/calendars/year-definitions.html
If you are interested in the history and archaeology of calendar, I highly recommend the scholarship of Anthony F. Aveni in such books as Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks and Cultures.
One of my personal favorite books of history and folklore about telling time is by a British history professor from University of Bristol, Ronald Hutton who wrote The Stations of the Sun among many fine scholarly works on rituals and folklore in Great Britain.


  1. I'm afraid I stick with the boring old Western calendar, although I'd also read with great interest the articles on the Ethiopian Millenium celebrations.

    If you want another unusual calendar, try the one they use in South Korea. Oh my goodness! Some of my students last year tried to explain to me how everyone has 2 birthdays, and I followed up with some reading on the internet, and I was still thoroughly confused.

    I don't celebrate a certain moveable feast either. But I do remember talking with someone last year about the need in this country for a non-sectarian family holiday somewhere maybe in March or April. Most people have Thanksgiving and then Christmas right on top of each other, and then there's this long drought to -- when? Fourth of July? Not quite the same. Now, I know a lot of people do Easter, but it's just not the same as Thanksgiving.

  2. Aren't calendars fun? I've always thought so.

    I find the idea of "legal" holidays vs. the actual day that they are to commemorate very diverting. Like the all-encompassing "Presidents' Day," which I suppose is a better name than WashingLincoln Day or some such oddity. And which President to put first? Oh, that would rile up the Ladies of Mount Vernon verus the Illinoisians!

    Your comments on the South Korean calendar are very intriguing. Two birthdays?! Do you get presents at both?