Calendar Play

Having not posted for a while due to moving house, I want to restart with a light-hearted topic for the holidays.

December (“the tenth month”) is a month of celebrations; the month known for Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and Christmas, among many other religious holidays. That is because the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere) falls in December.

The period around the winter solstice is traditionally celebrated with lights – to counter for the natural dark of the season, and many cultures have ceremonies going back to ancient times, honouring fire or the sun, or, as in the Hindi festival of Diwali, celebrating good winning over evil.

Yet, since most of the currently dominant cultures of the world originated in the northern hemisphere, we, in New Zealand, end up having Christmas lights in the middle of summer.

Christmas, like many celebrations, is a hybrid of different cultural aspects: the nativity displays and the name “Christmas” are of Christian origin, while the idea of Yule tide with its log burning have a Celtic background.

In Roman times, the winter solstice Saturnalia celebration included lamps to guide one’s journey through life, decorating homes with greens and with lights, receiving coins and eating cakes – Sound familiar?

Evergreens were also used in many Germanic and pagan rituals around the solstice. This makes sense, because evergreens are a natural symbol of eternal life – nobody would take the bare branch of a deciduous tree to symbolize the turn of the seasons.

Hence, Christmas as the celebration we know today was not accepted by some Christians until as recently as the late eighteen hundreds. The Puritans that lived in much of New England prohibited the celebration, so the children there had to go to school or risk being expelled.

In addition to each culture having its own special celebrations, each family also tends to have its own traditions during these times. I know of one family that goes to the cinema on Christmas Day. When I was young, we had large family gatherings, but my own (dislocated) nuclear family celebrates the Dutch “Sinterklaas” – which in The Netherlands takes place on the 6th of December – on Christmas Day.

Sinterklaas, the original Santa Claus, is derived from Saint Nicholas, who according to legend brought children gifts on his saint’s day, and the story goes that he still does. But while Father Christmas spends the year on the North Pole, Sinterklaas lives in Spain and his helpers are not elves but black boys called “Zwarte Piet” (black Piet).

There are two going explanations for these black helpers: The original, which must be rooted at least as far back as when the Moors ruled Spain, assumes that people who live that far south are black. The second explanation, which became popular once holidays to Spain made the original story too transparent even for children, is  that the boys get black from crawling in and out of chimneys delivering the presents. Sinterklaas does not have a sled that flies through the air, but a white horse with which he rides over the rooftops, yet, just like Santa Claus, he is on the look-out for “naughty” children. Now chimneys are becoming scarce, gifts are usually left at the door in a big jute bag.

The tradition of giving children gifts with Sinterklaas instead of Christmas is pretty much universal in The Netherlands, and many families have some sort of “surprise and poem” tradition, in which the actual gift (which is of less cost and importance) is hidden inside a crafted joke, usually made of recycled material or cardboard. This joke is meant to make fun of something the recipient did during the year. A rhyme is attached to the gift to explain this crafty joke (since not everybody is born with the gift of making these things obvious).

Since I dislike the giving gifts for gifts’ sake – the moment you hand over the present, the paper gets ripped of; if you’re lucky the words “thank you” are uttered and that’s it – I reinstated this Dutch tradition in my family when the kids had outgrown Santa Claus. This way each person gets the proper attention for the time spent making the craft work and it takes us three or four hours easily to exchange a few gifts, while the weeks of ‘secret’ preparation are just as much fun.

This year, due to being late with thinking up and creating the craft projects due to our move, we have decided to postpone the celebration to New Year’s Eve, a decision that was easier for me and one of my children (being P personality types) than it was for my J-husband and daughter, who put more value on traditions being kept where they belong.

And that brings me to my discussion about calendars, since it is the importance that people attach to their own belief-related traditions and ceremonies that have always stood in the way of a world calendar being universally accepted.

The purpose of a calendar is to calculate or signify important events (agricultural or religious) and to organize business and civil life for people to get together, since people need to use the same calendar and clock if they want to be able to meet up. Yet, throughout history different cultures have used different ways of dividing up the year, the week and even the day – some measure days from sunrise to sunset; others from midnight to midnight, and on some calendars the week begins on a Sunday, instead of the traditional Monday, which confuses the idea of a “week end”.

The Gregorian calendar – which is the calendar we use – is a solar calendar that, despite using the word “month”, measures time between vernal equinoxes and thus the position of the Earth in relation to the sun (not the moon).

Some calendars are purely lunar (like the Islamic calendar) and go by the phases of the moon to divide the year into 12 equal parts (to add up to 354 days) that do not coincide with the seasons or the solar year.

Most other calendars are lunisolar (like the Chinese, the Hindu and the Hebrew calendars) that make adjustments, usually by adding days or weeks to the lunar year so it coincides with the solar year.

The Mayan calendar, like many calendars of the Middle and South American region, is a Tzolk’in calendar, that is based on 260 days and allows for smaller cycles inside bigger cycles.

Changing the Calendar:

The Julian Calendar, in use since Roman times, counted a year as 365 days and six hours (which is almost eleven minutes more than it takes for the Earth to move from Vernal Equinox to Vernal Equinox) and so it had accumulated almost eleven days too many by the time the Italian philosopher Aloyisius Lilius designed his new calendar (named after pope Gregory XIII) in 1582.

To realign with the Vernal Equinox, the accumulated days were removed and the new calendar was introduced that same year. This new (Gregorian) calendar solved the problems of the Julian calendar, including the way the leap years were counted,  yet it still allowed for the old ways of the churches calculating the date of Easter. The new calendar also retained the Julian numbering system of years that began with the Christian date associated with the birth of Christ – which is why many people today still use “BC” or “AD”. It also retained the misnomers of the months September to December, which according to their names are the seventh through tenth months, but thanks to July and August having been inserted by the Roman emperors are now actually the ninth through twelfth months.

Soon the Gregorian calendar was in use throughout Europe, but other countries did not accept it until much later, like Britain in 1752, Japan in 1873, and China in 1929, by which time the number of accumulated days had grown to 13 days.

In 1792, during the French Revolution a new (decimal) calendar and clock were instated in France; a system that was truly original and based on the decimal system, yet the clock never worked, since it was too big a change from what people were used to, and the calendar also did not last, because the new government was overthrown by Napoleon twelve years later. It might have not lasted anyway, since the months were given names that referred to the weather in Paris (which was still under the influence of The Little Ice age)  – the days were given names of plants, animals or minerals – while the holidays were strongly France-only focused.

Today, many people feel that we should reform the calendar once again, this time not in order to adjust for accumulated days or to a decimal system, but in an effort to unite all the people of the world with a calendar that is not predominantly Christian and that is user friendly – in that it fixes the dates to a specific day that is the same every year (a perennial calendar).

There have been several proposals, among which the “International Fixed Calendar”, which counts thirteen months of exactly twenty-eight days and one or two intercalary days. It adds the thirteenth month (named Sol) between June and July, but otherwise retains the naming system. The problem I see with that is that the names of September through December are still misnomers, while “Sol” is nice for midsummer, but only in the northern hemisphere.

The first workable solar perennial twelve-month calendar was designed by  Gustave Armelin in 1887 and it has been actively promoted thanks to the efforts of Elisabeth Achelis and The World Calendar Association since the early twentieth century. This proposal – that is opposed by the different religious groups because for Muslims Friday tends to be a holy day, for Jews it is Saturday and for Christians it is Sunday, so that they all consider the seven day cycle sacred – is regular, simple and easy to understand. It still has twelve months and weeks of seven days, but each year (January 1st) starts on a Sunday; each quarter has three months  and 91 days, in which the first month has 31 days and the other two have 30. In this way, the  first day of the year and of every quarter falls on a Sunday; every second month in the quarter starts on a Wednesday and every third month of the quarter on a Friday. The last day of the year, day 365 or “Worlds Day” is added as an intercalary day, and so is a leap day after June 30th once every four years.

Apart from religious objections, there have also been objections of some governments, namely the USA, so that the proposal was rejected in the UN in 1955. The hope to make 2012 the start of the new World Calendar also having failed, the organization (TWCA) now aims for 2017.

So, why did I write all this?

Because I love playing with calendars and with all the ideas we assume to be pretty fixed. For my science fiction series (Of a Note in a Cosmic Song), which plays in another solar system, the colonists struggle with their different clocks and calendars, since the planets they travel between each have a different revolution and rotation, which influences not only the length of their year, but also their hours of daylight. It took me months to draw and calculate all the different possibilities of planet revolutions and rotations, before I had a system I could use.

In my teen novel (Lohland), the independent city state Lohland divides its Earth year into eight “stations” that each have seven 6-day weeks and a number of holidays. This number is adjusted to align with the solstice or equinox. The holidays are all related to celestial events or to stages of life, so that there is no favouritism to any religion.

This story was actually written to accommodate the calendar I had designed (as well as the education system) and introduces new names and a six-day week, which I consider a necessity with so many people today job sharing or needing to cut back on their work hours. I also added my Sinterklaas celebration (but without the saint), since I wanted to show that you can keep the traditions, even if you change the date or the meaning.

Lohland calendar 001

Personally, I think it is high time that we restart our calendar (including the numbering of the years) to reflect the changing times and a united Earth population, and if we are going to make changes anyway, why not change the whole calendar once and for all in every way?