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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. (more…)