Thirty to forty thousand years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Life was short and brutish, and dentistry had not been invented. Anatomically, people were just like us, lacking only our effortlessly cynical attitude. Try if you can to imagine life before fast food, deodorant, and digital stereo. Unlike us, they were not obsessed by â€œstuff,â€ since they could only use what they could carry around. The oldest human artifacts ever found date from this time. They are calendar sticks â€” portable pieces of wood with notches carved into them to count cycles of the Moon or Sun.
Our ancestors absolutely depended on keeping track of the time. If they foraged during the day, they would have to begin to return to camp before the Sun reached its highest point in the sky. Otherwise, mmmmm, crunchy snack for a saber-toothed cat. Keeping track of the seasons allowed them to predict when to find their favorite foods. These foods did not have names yet, so they were known as â€œthe bright red berry that is sweet but goes right through youâ€ or â€œsmall furry animal that tastes like pork gone off.â€ Each winter the shortening days and shallow slanting rays of the Sun would signal the time to migrate back to the Florida timeshare.
Five or six thousand years ago, tribes around Europe began to build large stone circles. These were multi-use buildings, Stone Age versions of a church or a town hall. The stones were perfectly aligned to mark out the positions of sunrise on the longest or the shortest day of the year. Everyoneâ€™s heard of Stonehenge, which rises like a pile of giant kidâ€™s blocks out of a meadow in southern England. Stonehenge is now used only by modern pagans, a free-spirited tribe that annoys the hell out of the Brits who canâ€™t shit anything larger than a BB.
Hereâ€™s the trouble with calendars. The time it takes the Earth to spin once on its axis is a day. The time it takes for the Earth to return to the same place in its orbit of the Sun is a year. If there were a whole number of days in a year, keeping track of time would be no big deal.
But there are not 365 days in a year. There are not even 365Â¼. There are 365.242199 days in a year. So if your calendar has 365 days, you are about 6 hours short. After 100 years, that 6 hours has accumulated into 600 hours, or nearly a month. This calendar will get steadily out of whack with the seasons. OK, you think, letâ€™s do the leap year thing. That brings the average to 365Â¼ days in a year. But 365.25 is not the same as 365.242199. The tiny difference of 1/100 of a day grows into a whole day after 100 years and ten days after 1000 years.
Why not use the Moon to make a calendar? There are about 29Â½ days in a lunar cycle. Trouble is, 29Â½ doesnâ€™t divide neatly into 365Â¼. It goes 12 times with 11 days left over. So a lunar calendar slips with respect to the seasons at a rate of one month every three years. Every 35 years, a lunar calendar shifts through an entire solar year.
The entire Arab world uses the Moon for their calendar. Check it out in any encyclopedia â€” the Islamic countries are those with a crescent Moon in their flags. They ignore the Sun for keeping time, which is a cunning strategy in a part of the world where you can fry an egg on the sidewalk most times of the year. As a result, Ramadan and the major Arab festivals could fall on any day of our calendar. Timekeeping depends on direct observation of the Moon (the word moon comes from the Greek metron, to measure). Until the new sliver of Moon is actually observed on the ninth month of the lunar cycle, the minaret hollerers cannot declare party time in Mecca. A few clouds in the wrong part of the sky, and all those camels stuffed with donkeys stuffed with goats stuffed with pigs have to be put back on ice.
They say that science marches forward. Well, the science of calendars is full of anachronisms and oddities. The Babylonians had a calendar that was accurate to 30 minutes a year over 5000 years ago. Europe did not equal it until 4500 years later. When the Spanish conquered Central and South America, they trashed the local culture and customs (but that gold work is nice, yes, weâ€™ll take that, and here, have some devastating diseases while weâ€™re at it). Yet, among other things, the Maya and Inca calendars were far superior.
If our culture is so advanced and rational, why do we have to remember a little ditty to figure out the number of days in each month? Why did February get left short? Why do the last four months of the year come from the roots of the words for 7,8,9, and 10, when we have 12 months in the year? Why does the year start at the beginning of January? Why does Easter shift around in the calendar, while Christmas always falls on the same day? Who thought up this stuff anyway?
The Romans. In the 7th century B.C., the time of Romulus, the ancient Romans were just one of many warlike tribes scattered through Europe. They kept track of time vaguely, with a calendar of ten months that alternated 30 and 31 days. The year started sometime in March, because that was when the snow in the Alps melted enough for the Roman legions to go off and kick some serious butt.
So the year began with March, named after the god of war. Then came April, after Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Next was May, after the ancient fertility god Maia. Then June, after Juno, the goddess of women. But the Romans were simple folk. Violent, but simple. After they had run through their gods, they named the rest of the months after the numbers 5 to 10. This calendar of just over 300 days makes a poor apology for a year.
In the 6th century B.C., the emperor Pompilus added two short months of 25 days each to the front end of the year. January was named after Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings, and February was named after the festival of purification. A bit later, the emperor Priscus made more adjustments. He bumped up the length of the first two months.
However, the Romans were incredibly superstitious. Black cats, ladders, broken mirrors, salt tossed over the shoulder â€” you name it, they had a hand in passing it down to us. Even numbers were bad luck, so the months alternated 29 and 31 days. Under the principle that â€œshit happens,â€ the Romans came up with the clever idea of concentrating misfortune in one month. February became the short month with an unlucky 28 days. It was too cold to raise a legion and make war. It was too dark to go to the forum and see a good disemboweling. No Roman would travel at all in February. For the entire month they would hole up and satisfy carnal urges, with occasional trips to the spa or the vomitorium.
This flaky calendar became intolerable by the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar tweaked the calendar to make a neatly alternating pattern of months with 30 and 31 days. (February remained the unloved child with 29 days.) He added a day every fourth or leap year to make the average year last 365Â¼ days. With an ego as big as the Colliseum, Caesar grabbed the first unnamed month for himself. So Quintilus (the number 5, but the 7th month) became July. Emperor Augustus followed. His ego matched Caesarâ€™s, and so he nabbed Sextilus as his month. Thus we have August. But Augustus saw that his month was shorter than July, so he added a day to it, and then had to adjust other months and the pattern got screwed up forever.
Why do we start the year on January 1st? The Earth repeats its orbit of the Sun endlessly and we could start the year on any day. The real reason was so Christianity could get a jump on the pagans. Since the dawn of time, humans have been Sun worshippers. Stonehenge and all those other rock piles were built to mark the longest and shortest days of the year. The biggest cheers were saved for the time just after December 21st, when the sunset position starts moving back to the north and the Sun makes a higher and warmer arc in the sky.
So early Christian leaders placed Christâ€™s birthday just after the winter solstice (the Good Book makes it clear he was born much later in the spring). And they co-opted the pagan calendar by starting our year on January 1. It was all a way of making converts to this new religion. This schizophrenia is really apparent in the case of Easter. In the Bible, Easter is set by the lunar calendar and should not always fall on a Sunday. Easter flops around in our calendar because it is the first Sunday after the first full moon that falls after March 21st. And March 21st is â€” you got it â€” the spring equinox, another pagan holiday. Orthodox Jews and the Eastern Orthodox group got fed up with this kluge and split off to follow their own lunar calendar.
It must have been a hard sell for those early Popes. You can have Christianity, with cold stone pews, turn the other cheek, and no real fun until the hereafter. Or you can go with paganism, which has lots of body painting, dancing, and free sex. What would you choose?
Paganism still looks pretty good. Itâ€™s an official religion in most parts of the United States. So you can claim all eight pagan holidays, the cardinal points of the solar year. In addition to the solstices and the equinoxes, there are the mid-points between them: February 1st, May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. Most of these have long been forgotten, but we still celebrate the last as Halloween.
Even Caesarâ€™s nifty calendar was not the final answer. It is a bit longer than the Earthâ€™s orbit, and so by the 16th century the calendar was 10 days out of synch. In 1582, Pope Gregory added the bit about skipping leap years in century years unless they are divisible by 400. This gives a most excellent calendar, guaranteed to keep the seasons lined up thousands of years after humans have been wiped out by prions or bombs or whatever other damn fool thing we dream up.
Out of anti-papal pique, the mostly Protestant England and United States put off converting to the Gregorian system for another 170 years. And so April 1st, 1752 was followed by April 12th, as the slack was taken up overnight by government decree. (The mostly Catholic French mocked this late switch by inventing the idea of April Fools day.) Ben Franklin wrote in Poor Richardâ€™s Almanac to reassure people over the â€œlossâ€ of their 11 days. There were widespread riots anyway.
The French, bless their garlicky little hearts, once tried a rational scheme. After the French Revolution was over and all the loose heads had been cleaned up, the communal government declared a calendar of 12 thirty-day months, plus five festival days. Free of pagan relics, the months had names like Meadow, Mist, and Blossom. The festivals were titled Virtue, Genius, Labor, Opinion, and Reward. There was a ten-day week. Every day had ten hours, each of 100 minutes, each of 100 seconds. It was totally cool and post-modern. The trouble was the rest of Europe, which trundled along with the old system. Commerce became a nightmare. So after twelve years of the experiment, Napoleon kissed the ring and came back into the fold.
So here we are, stuck with pagan relics and Roman ego trips. Surely there is a better way. Me? â€” Iâ€™m signing up with Islam. That lunar calendar sounds pretty good right now.