According to a recent Pew Research study, most Americans know that Mother Teresa was a Catholic and about half are aware that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month. But how many of us know that Christmas isn’t always on December 25th and, honestly, who really knows when Easter will be observed next year?
The problem, and it’s not one exclusive to Americans, is that the world’s calendars, the principle means by which humanity tracks the passage of time, simply don’t agree. It can be disconcerting to have disagreement over commonly understood matters. Things like making a work schedule or knowing when to plan an important family holiday might seem to be a straight-forward, ordinary enterprise. But the reality of a multicultural, multi-faith world is that these simple tasks have become very complicated.
For one thing, our Gregorian calendar, a solar calendar named after the Catholic pope that created it in the late 16th century, is, itself, a revision from an older, pagan calendar dating back to the time of Julius Caesar which likewise was devised from an even older lunar calendar used by the Greeks.
To make matters even more difficult, every time a Catholic man marries a Jewish woman or a Buddhist weds a Muslim, the calendars of their respective religious traditions stagger and overlap in confusing ways. Life becomes a dizzying array of holidays stacked up like rush-hour traffic. Special days for which work is to be suspended in one calendar, or holy days which require observance in specific ways, flow through time as marked by the other calendar; occurring progressively earlier or later in the year depending on your perspective of time. Confused yet?
You are not alone. The confusion over time has been with us from the very beginning. Ever since man first tracked time by observing the phases of the moon (as with a lunar calendar) or noted the seasonal angle of the sun’s apparent rise and fall in the sky (as with a solar one), humanity has struggled to mark time. Tracking time, keeping time, predicting time becomes critical if you need to know when to plant crops in the spring or the best time to harvest them in the fall. Time has captured the attention of every agrarian society since the garden of Eden.
Ancient Egyptians began the first day of the new year at the end of August with the rise of the Nile River. The Egyptians observed how the Dog Star, Sirius, reappeared in the eastern sky after several months of invisibility and that the Nile overflowed its banks just a few days later. Theirs was predominantly a solar calendar with 12 months, each with 30 days and a dividend of 5 more days added at the end of the year to make 365. But they didn’t have a leap year! What they didn’t know was that the solar year is actually 365 days plus 5 hours and almost 49 minutes, or roughly an extra quarter of a day every year. So adding 5 days didn’t compensate for reality and the calendar drifted out of alignment.
The Romans got off to a bad start with their calendar. They had only 10 months with an uneven number of days totaling 304 days for their year. For a long time, they somehow ignored the remaining 61 days which for them fell in the middle of winter. By the time Julius Caesar came to power, the Roman calendar was hopelessly out of step. Caesar ordered more months to be added and incorporated an uneven number of days for some of them. To realign the calendar with the seasons, he also ordered that the year we refer to as 46 B.C. would have 445 days. The Romans referred to that time as the year of confusion.
So, our modern calendar, revised by Pope Gregory in 1582, was quickly adopted by most European countries, although a number of German states held on to the old Julian calendar until 1700. Today’s calendar and the means for its alignment via leap years, leap centuries and even an occasional leap second is very accurate. But there are still traces of history embedded in our calendar.
Our word for calendar, for instance, comes from the Latin word “calends,” meaning the division of time into periods adapted to public life. And what about those pesky pagan names? The days of our week come from the ancient Saxons who applied the names of their gods: Sun’s day became Sunday, Moon’s day became Monday and so on with each day named for a pagan god. We’ve misplaced those names in the modern era but for the record they are in succession: Tiw’s day, Woden’s day, Thor’s day, Frigg’s day and Seterne’s day.
Muslim holy days follow the lunar system. Like the Western calendar, there are 12 months in a year but each Muslim month is 29½ days long, totaling 354 days in a year, 11 short of a solar year. It means that Muslim holy days flow backward through the Gregorian calendar, occurring 11 days earlier each year. So when it comes to Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting (when the faithful neither eat nor drink from sunrise to sunset), there is what some Muslims refer to as an “easy Ramadan,” meaning those years when the holy month occurs in the spring compared to the hard one that falls during the summer when days are longer and temperatures higher.
The Jewish calendar uses a modified lunar and solar cycle system that allows holidays to drift through a particular month and then start over again, a means of ensuring that a particular holiday remains within the same month year after year.
Why isn’t Christmas always on December 25th? When Christmas is observed depends on where it’s observed. Christians in the West use a Western or Gregorian calendar, but those who live in the Middle East observe the Eastern Orthodox calendar which celebrates Christmas about a month later than Christians in the West.
When will Easter come next year? Well, there’s a complex formula used to determine the date but suffice it to say that it is a moveable feast, or a holy day that isn’t a fixed date in the calendar. Like Christmas, Easter occurs on a different day in the East than in the West because its calculation is still fixed to the old Julian calendar. Tellingly, from an interfaith perspective, the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter are linked not just by their position in the calendar but their names are homonymous or linguistically the same.
There has been an evolution to the way various societies have tracked time. The Baha’i calendar was devised in the mid-19th century and is based on a solar year. There are 19 months in a year, each one with 19 days totaling 361 in a year. Four days called Intercalary Days are added at the end of the year and in leap years an extra day is added. The word intercalary is yet another influence from the Latin, taken from the word intercalarius meaning inserted into the calendar.
The Baha’i calendar has the first day of the year reasonably pegged to the first day of spring or the vernal equinox, words also inherited from the Romans with vernal meaning spring and equinox the Latin word for equal nights (equi nox).
Juggling different calendars in the modern era can be very confusing, for all of the above reasons. Modern families include individuals from different ethnic and religious backgrounds which means many of us have to adjust to new ways of doing things. In a multicultural, multifaith society, we must broaden our understanding of what common practice means in public spaces.