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New Year’s Day & Calendars

New Year's postcard from 1910

The illustration above is a postcard from 1910. Often the Old Year is represented by a thin old man with a long beard, an hour glass  in his hand and a scythe over his shoulder, and the New Year appears as a baby or a toddler wearing no more than a banner inscribed with the numerals of the new year.  In those illustrations the Old Year looks a lot like Death himself, especially with that scythe. So the picture above is a refreshing change, even if it is from 1910.  The Old Year doesn’t look decrepit. In fact he seems to be a rather randy old guy gazing fondly at Miss New Year who is certainly no baby or toddler. He doesn’t realize that he’s out, he’s finished, he’s over with.  And, of course, young Miss New Year doesn’t know how fast she’s going to age over the next 365 days.

Here we are at the start of a new year. So this post is about calendars, and it’s gong to be a rather rambling story. And a bit longer than most posts. Deciding what day to choose as the start of a new year is up to us, of course. We can choose whatever day we want. But it’s really very, very useful if everyone agrees on whatever day is chosen, because that way we all know what day we’re talking about when we say we’ll meet on the 15th.  Of course, people being as they are, not everyone agrees on which day is the first, or which day is the first of the spring season or whose calendar is most sanctified.

On the other hand, the length of a year isn’t decided by us. We don’t get to choose the time it takes the earth to make a trip around the sun. For virtually all of human history no one knew that the earth was circling the sun, but people did notice that in addition to it’s daily trip from one side of the sky to the other, the sun made a much slower trip back and forth across that daily horizon-to-horizon path — or as we think of it, a slow trip north and south. And that slow journey brought summer as the sun approached overhead and the days grew longer, and winter came as the sun withdrew from overhead and the days grew shorter. That was a year, and for most of human history a year was the longest stretch of time the heavens gave us.

Another way our early ancestors marked time was by the moon, the twenty-eight days it takes to complete a cycle of waxing and waning. The moon is a most convenient clock. You can see that it’s grown or diminished every night and, depending on which way the crescent points, you can tell if it’s waxing or waning. And twenty-eight days is a length of time much easier to work and plan with than 365 days. The fact that women tend to have a menstrual cycle of 28 days made lunar cycles even more important. We at Critical Pages don’t have any theories about the similar periodicity of lunar cycles and menstrual cycles, or the nature of women.

(By the way, the Latin word for month is mensis, and the Latin for monthly is menstrualis. More cool facts with which to impress your friends who never studied Latin.) But to get back to the moon and solar calendar — there’s a little math problem here: the 28 days that make up a lunar month don’t fit neatly into the 365 days that compose a solar year. Thirteen lunar months gives us 364 days.

Now, the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon’s cycles, and it loses about 11 days relative to the solar calendar every year, but it makes up for the loss by adding a month every two or three years. As a result, Jewish holidays relative to the solar calendar don’t always fall on the same day, but they always fall within the same month or two. The Muslim calendar is also tied to the moon, but it doesn’t add months, so Muslim holy days circle through the solar calendar.

The Christian religious calendar is partly solar, marking Jesus’ birth on December 25th each year, and partly lunar, marking Easter by the moon. Tracking Ester is tricky. Easter is the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that comes on or after the first day of spring. (Paschal is an interesting word meaning Passover related or Easter related. A little etymology won’t hurt anybody. Keep reading.) These calculations occur because Jesus’ Last Supper, Holy Thursday, was on Passover, and he died on the following Sunday. Unfortunately, the paschal moon can occur on different days in different time zones, so to have Easter celebrated on the same day universally  (the word catholic, with a small c, means universal)  the Catholic church’s Council of Nicaea in 325 chose day fourteen of the lunar month as the full moon, and set the date of the spring equinox at March 21, though astronomically it can occur on March 20.

Despite the intentions of the Council of Nicaea, Easter isn’t celebrated on the same day everywhere. Western Christians, those following the pope, use the Gregorian calendar, the solar calendar named after Pope Gregory XIII and used by most of the world. But Eastern Christians, such as you find in Russia and Greece, use the old Julian calendar which is now seriously out of whack astronomically. The Julian calendar is named after Julius Caesar, who instituted it, and it’s based on a year composed of twelve months adding up to 365 and a quarter days. As it happens, an astronomically correct solar year is eleven minutes shorter than that, but 365 ¼ days per year was accurate enough for the Roman Empire.

Being off by eleven minutes a year adds up to about three days every four centuries. That may not look like much of an error if you think in terms of a human lifetime or even the lifetime of the Roman Empire. But the Catholic church took the long view of human history and time and, for that matter, eternity. More to the point, by the time of Pope Gregory XIII and the year 1582 the Julian calendar was off by eleven days, so the first day of spring was off by that amount, and consequently the calculation for Easter Sunday was off. (Recall that Easter Sunday is the first Sunday after the first full moon that follows the first day of Spring.) In the Christian calendar, Easter marks the day Jesus rose from the dead and is the most sacred of sacred days, so getting the day right was important.

At first the Gregorian calendar was adopted by a few countries, not many, but it gradually gained acceptance. Countries of the Protestant Reformation resisted the change, but ultimately it became the civil calendar around the globe, and in the twentieth century Greece and Russia, the last holdouts, adopted it as well.

OK, that’s it for calendars. Happy New Year, whichever calendar you use!

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.