A new year but an old, sectarian calendar


The newly-placed wall calendar in the dentist’s waiting room in Providence declares the year to be 2014; but if one reckons by the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5774; by the Mayan calendar, 5133; by the Buddhist calendar, 2558; by the old Imperial Roman (Julian) calendar, 2,767; and by the Islamic calendar, 1434.

Clearly, the year’s numeric number on any given calendar is no more objectively valid than another calendar’s number. And so, for example, if the founder of one’s religion had been Elvis Presley, then this new Presleyan year would be a modest 79.

Each of the many systems by which the years are numbered begins its first day coincident with some solemn religious event, divine birth or royal edict; and hence, each calendar serves a particular ethnic or sectarian constituency. Great confusion, therefore, awaits diplomats, world travelers and those engaged in international commerce if there is no universal calendar. Accordingly, most of the world, by common consent, now employs the Gregorian calendar; but had Islam conquered Europe in the 16th century, today’s year would likely be 1424. As with many established societal customs such as language, the choices are made by the victors.

To fill its purposes, a global calendar must achieve more than universal acceptance. It must also be compliant with certain objective criteria such as the timing of the solstices and equinoxes, and the length of the year. The universal calendar must be aligned with the heavens as well as with popular opinion.

The Julian calendar, established in 45 B.C.E. by Julius Caesar, was impressed by fiat upon the far-reaching Roman Empire. It served most of the western world as a reasonable approximation of the true solar year. Increasingly, though, the discrepancies between Julian time and real time increased, leading to deep concerns that calendar-oriented religious observances, particularly Easter, were departing substantially from their originally assigned dates. It then became necessary, at yearly intervals, to delete or intercalate days into the Julian calendar to make it concordant with the astronomer’s calendar. But as long as there was only one church supervising the destinies of the Western nations, the Julian calendar, with its many errors, prevailed.

The Reformation, however, ended the fragile religious unity of Western Europe; and with it, the capacity of one authority, the Vatican, to determine the structure of the calendar. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) represented the Church’s response to the spread of the Protestant sects; but the Council also advocated that the flawed Julian calendar be replaced.

Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) convened a commission expressly to devise a new calendar. Three men were ultimately involved in its implementation. Pope Gregory (whose name was given to the new calendar), Christopher Clavius, a brilliant Jesuit mathematician, and a Calabrian physician, Aloysius Lilius, of unknown ethnic background.

It was Lilius’ plan that was finally adopted. It declared that the year consist of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 secondsAnd to accommodate for accumulating annual differences, an extra day (the leap day) should be added every four years. The Lilius formula, with some additional fine-tuning, reduced the calendric discrepancy to but one day in 3,300 years.

The Lilius plan also stipulated that the year begin on January 1 rather than March 1. And the new calendar, the Gregorian, was officially implemented by papal bull on February 24, 1582.

For almost two succeeding centuries, the Protestant nations, including Britain’s American colonies, rejected the new calendar as heresy with prolonged riots in many European cities as well as confusion amongst the contemporary historians: George Washington’s birthday is declared as two separate dates by the Julian (February 11, 1731) and Gregorian (February 22, 1731) calendars.

The Gregorian calendar was finally accepted in the 18th century, despite continuing peasant protests. Japan accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, China in 1912 (coincident with the Sun Yat Sen revolution) and Russia in 1917 (coincident with the Bolshevik revolution). Some members of Congress are still debating the issue.

Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., may be reached at smamd@cox.net.