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Then and now
George Washington was born on February 11, but his birthday is celebrated on February 22. Benjamin Franklin was born in January 1705, but he died in April 1790 at the age of 84. Could the founders not do arithmetic? Did they not keep accurate records?
“Thus ends the year with great mirth,” wrote Samuel Pepys in his diary on December 31, 1662. He had been to a party. “Having staid here as long as I thought fit, to my infinite content, it being the greatest pleasure I could wish now to see at Court, I went home, leaving them dancing.” The entry for the following day was headed “1662-63, January 1.” Was Pepys confused? Hung over? Unable to make up his mind?
There were two great convulsions in Russia in 1917: the February Revolution, which toppled the czar, and the October Revolution, which installed the Bolsheviks. The former took place in March, the latter in November. Huh?
People have been wrestling with dates and how to record them since humans first noticed a regularity in the seasons and the phases of the sun and moon. Stonehenge and other early monuments aligned with the summer and winter solstices, anchoring the builders and their societies within the solar calendar. But Stonehenge couldn’t fit in a pocket or purse or whatever Mesolithic hunter-gatherers carried their effects in; something portable was required.
Eventually calendars appeared, marking and numbering the days. The length of time between solstices was too unwieldy for many purposes; months—the time from one full moon to the next—broke things up. Weeks—quarter-months–-subdivided further.
Inconveniently for humans, the lunar cycles don’t fit neatly into the solar cycle. Some cultures preferred the former. People in Java and the Arabian peninsula employed lunar calendars; Muslims still do for religious purposes. Several societies split the difference, measuring their years by months but resetting against the sun every so often. China, India and Vietnam do this; likewise Christians and Jews.
Many cultures started counting their years from the beginnings of dynasties. Laws in England after the Norman conquest were dated in the form “in the twentieth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.” The Chinese did this until their 1911 revolution. The Chinese additionally name years by the twelve signs of the zodiac, and in groups of sixty. They also keep a running tally from a semi-mythological start almost five thousand years ago.
In the Western world, the Romans imposed order on the calendar, as on much else. Their Julian calendar specified twelve months averaging a bit over thirty days each, with an extra day included every fourth year. Originally the Julian calendar counted years forward from its origin in the reign of its namesake, Julius Caesar. But after the emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in the fourth century, year one was recalibrated to the birth of Jesus.
The annual tally of 365¼ days of the Julian calendar is close to right but not exact. Over time it drifted out of synch with the astronomical events it supposedly had pinned down. In the sixteenth century Pope Gregory XIII ordered a fix, which subtracted three leap days every four hundred years.
This would have solved the calendar problem for most of Christendom, except that Christendom had been split by the Reformation several decades earlier. The result was that Catholics adopted the Gregorian calendar but Protestants—as befitted their name—protested. The Church of England, in particular, kept the Julian calendar.
But not forever. By the mid-eighteenth century, the errors of the old calendar were too great to ignore. Swallowing their Protestant pride, members of Parliament voted in 1750 to go with Gregory. To catch up, this required jumping eleven days ahead in the calendar. And so the English went to bed on Wednesday September 2, 1752, and woke up on Thursday September 14. Many people born before the change, including George Washington, backdated their birth dates, which in his case went from February 11 to February 22.
The same 1750 act declared that new years would start on January 1. Till then English new years began on March 25, closer to Easter, which represents new birth to Christians. Thus December 1705 had been followed by January 1705, the month of Franklin’s birth. Under the new scheme, December 1752 would be followed by January 1753. Again backdating, Franklin’s birth month of January 1705 became January 1706.
In fact, the new system, which was in practice in other countries of Europe, had already been adopted ad hoc by many in England. Which was why Pepys and his rowdy friends celebrated New Year’s Eve on December 31, in defiance of the legal calendar.
As for those Russian revolutions, the Eastern Orthodox Church had broken from Rome in the eleventh century; they continued to ignore Gregory’s memo into the twentieth century. The Julian calendar showed February when the czar fell; the Gregorian calendar read March. Lenin’s Bolshevik gang seized power in October per Julius, in November per Gregory. After they took power, the Bolsheviks broke the hold of the Orthodox church on Russian public affairs and put the Soviet Union on the Gregorian calendar. By that point the switch required a thirteen-day jump forward.
Other calendars have been tried. The French republican calendar, concocted by the same minds that introduced the metric system, had twelve months of thirty days, with five or six bonus days added at year’s end. Each month had three weeks; each week had ten days. For good measure, each day was divided into ten hours, each hour into one hundred minutes, and each minute into a hundred seconds. The new calendar met resistance from workers, who didn’t like getting one day off every ten days rather than one every seven. The Catholic Church disliked it for the same sabbath-diluting reason, and because the church disliked everything the revolution stood for, starting with its rabid anticlericalism. Napoleon junked the experiment as part of his shift from savior of the revolution to agent of its destruction.
Today the Gregorian calendar is the basis of public date-keeping in nearly all the countries in the world. Religious groups maintain separate calendars, but for modern secular scheduling humanity ironically follows the lead of a Catholic pope who lived half a millennium ago.