Counting Days: The Minds Behind The Calendar

The calendar is something we don’t often stop to really think about, yet it rules our lives all the same. We use it to mark important dates, we track with it the passing days, we hang it on a wall or set it on a desk. As the year ends, we usually set it aside and pull up the next one. With this new year underway, however, I’d like to take just a few minutes to look back. When did we start using calendars? Who came up with them in the first place? Let’s flip through the pages of time and find out, shall we?

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Pictured above: An early sunrise.

For as long as we’ve existed, we’ve been looking for ways to track the passage of time. One handy way is to track the Sun. When it rises, a new day begins. Simple enough, right? That way may work for short time spans, but what if you’re recalling something that happened a long time ago? You probably wouldn’t say that you went on a vacation 255 sunsets ago, nor would your best friend say that her sisters were born exactly 10,032 sunrises ago. That’s where months and years come in handy.

Problem is, what counts as a month, and what’s considered a year? When it comes to years, most people would agree that a year is based on the complete rotation of the seasons. There’s no way (sans time machine) to know which civilization or individual came up with the idea first, though a prehistoric site in Scotland (Warren Field, to be more precise) suggests that humans have been tracking the passage of seasons in some material form for over 10,000 years. As for months, the answer’s a bit more complicated. Early civilizations had their own ways of doing things, unique traditions to commemorate, different seasonal conditions. With these calendars often falling behind the seasons, leap periods were needed to realign the calendar with the seasons, thus making it even more complicated.

Pictured above: An Antikythera Mechanism fragment discovered in a shipwreck, part of an ancient Greek proto-computer used to predict eclipses and changes in astronomical positions.

How about we go through some early models? Babylonia used the appearance of the crescent moon to mark a new month; their years usually had 12 months, but they sometimes added a 13th month just whenever the king felt like it. Persia (based on the Babylonian system) had a similar strategy, but they stayed consistent and added a leap month every 6 years. The Ancient Egyptians had 12 months also, with every month having only 3 10-day weeks, and they sometimes had a leap month which was 5 days long.

Perhaps the strangest of all the calendars in the area, however, was that of the early Roman Empire. Some months, like Maius and Iunius, they named after gods. Others, like September and November, basically just meant Seventh Month and Eight Month, and there wasn’t much consistency between the day counts in the months. Stranger still was the winter gap, in which there seemingly existed no month at all for 50+ days. Romulus, you’re a cool king and all for founding Rome, but what was with that time gap in your calendar?

Pictured above: A crispy Kronk meme.

The calendar did improve over time, of course. There had been only ten months, but Ianuarius and Februarius were later added by the second king Numa Pompilius to fill in the aforementioned winter gap, which unintentionally turned September through December into misnomers. A leap month was also adopted every few years, though it wasn’t implemented with any regular pattern because politics, making it practically useless.

This intercalary month was later removed through Julius Caesar’s reforms. He wanted an even better system, so with input from some of the most renowned Greek philosophers and mathematicians of the time, he conceived a new and improved calendar system. This one incorporated the Egyptian vision of having a consistent set of days per month and the Greek astronomical projections which calculated 365 1/4 days in a year, which is also why we now have a leap day rather than a leap month. Caesar also did other neat things here and there, like making Rome a regional superpower and greatly improving the quality of life for the middle & lower classes, but we’re only going to focus on his calendar for now.

Quintilis and Sextilus were posthumously renamed to Julius and Augustus, in the respective honors of Caesar and the first Roman Emperor Augustus. Though the month names (at least most of them) have shifted in spelling over time (Iunius to June, Ianuarius to January, Julius to July, etc), their linguistic origins date back to the founding of Ancient Rome. For how strange their calendar design may have seemed at the time, it was the Julian design that eventually prevailed in popularity. The Roman Empire’s influence was vast, after all, and when in Rome…

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Pictured above: A close-up of an Aztec Sun Stone, which depicts the Tōnalpōhualli calendar.

Before we move on from the ancient past, it would be good to look at a few honorable mentions in other parts of the globe. After all, there’s more to the ancient world than just the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The first honorable mention I’d like to share is the Aztec design, or should I say designs? They actually had two kinds of calendars, a 365-day one (presumably for agriculture) and a 260-day one for ritualistic purposes.

Xiuhpōhualli, the former calendar, had 18 ‘months’ lasting 20 days. At the end of each cycle, there was an extra 5-day period, which was considered unlucky. Tōnalpōhualli, the latter calendar, had 20 ‘weeks’ lasting 13 days long, each ‘week’ having a representative Aztec deity. As this calendar was designed in a circle-type configuration, each day in the cycle had a unique identification. Used in tandem with each other, these calendars would line up with each other every 52 years, and a new sun cycle would begin. It’s quite an interesting design for a calendar system, it’s a bit sad that no version of this still exists in common use today.

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Pictured above: A full moon.

The other honorable mention is one which still is in common use, the traditional Chinese calendar. Of all the calendars remaining relevant into the modern day, this one is quite possibly the most well-known outside of the Gregorian calendar, which we’ll get into shortly. Like the Babylonian calendar and unlike our own calendar, this one is lunisolar, which means it determines the length of months based off the Moon’s phases.

A new month in this case begins with the new moon, which explains why the Chinese New Year seems to occur so late. This design has the same problem of falling behind the seasons, so if there are too many new moons in a year, an extra month is added. You probably know of the Chinese Zodiac system, in which each year is represented by a certain spiritual animal. This upcoming new year, that animal will be the Rat, which was said to be the first animal to arrive at the Jade Emperor’s party. Given that this renewal aligns with the Metal element cycle, you can expect this to be a prosperous year full of change.

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Pictured above: St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City.

With the honorable mentions done, now we can move forward. As Rome’s influence spread further, so too did the Julian calendar. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, it still held up pretty well, so people kept using it. There was, however, one big problem with it: the leap years. Remember before when I mentioned that the Greeks calculated a year to have 365 1/4 days? Well, they were a little bit off with that measurement, it’s actually closer to 365.24 days. That may not seem like much of a difference, but over the course of centuries, such a discrepancy is huge. By the 14th century, the calendar had drifted roughly 10 days ahead.

This was becoming a problem for the Catholic Church, as Easter wasn’t lining up properly with the spring equinox. To fix it, Pope Gregory XIII brought about a reform to the Julian calendar. Instead of always having a leap day every 4 years, there would only be leap years when the year number was a multiple of 4, excluding centennial years not divisible by 400. This would fix the drift problem, and so far this fix has been working out.

Of course, not everyone was willing to go along with the change at first. A side effect of this shift meant that an adopting nation would need to lose 10+ days to make up for the drift. Protestant and Orthodox Christian nations as well as England in particular were initially against it, as this would mean siding with their rival. If you’ve ever wondered why the Orthodox Church places Christmas on January 7 instead of December 25, this division is the reason why. Anyways, as it became clear the Julian calendar was drifting even farther, more governments gradually began to adopt the Gregorian model.

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Pictured above: The Tennis Court Oath on 20 June 1789, painted by Auguste Couder.

This was normally the part of the series where I’d move to one last modern advancement. However, I actually can’t do that this time. There really hasn’t been much change to the calendar since 1582. It’s not a piece of technology like the telescope or the microscope, which continue to evolve constantly. I could talk about factors that helped it spread like the printing press, but that’s a different topic entirely. Maybe some other day, but not now.

Let’s instead leave this off with a not-so-successful attempt to reform the calendar. France, being close to the Catholic Church, was one of the first nations to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Things were going relatively okay for a couple hundred years after that, but then came along the French Revolution. The Republic that arose in the absence of a king wanted a France free of religion, and a calendar brought into place by religion was not going to be looked upon kindly. Long story short, a guy named Charles-Gilbert Romme directed the creation process of a new calendar, and the National Convention approved it in 1793.

This new 360-day calendar was a lot like the Ancient Egyptian design in that it had 3 ‘weeks’ lasting 10 days each. The months were named with a nature-type theme (the names of which were conceived of by the playwright Fabre d’Églantine) to remove any religious or otherwise non-French associations. To emphasize the focus on the French Republic, they marked year 1792, in which the French Republic was established, as the first year.

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Pictured above: An early sunset.

Though Romme was later deemed a traitor and sentenced to death (notably, he and several other prisoners committed suicide in public view before they reached the guillotine), this design continued to stay in effect for around 12 years. Later, a little-known man called Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power and scrapped it in favor of bringing back the Gregorian calendar. So much for that calendar, eh?

Our calendars may not have changed much since their creation, but history certainly has. Empires and nations have fought each other time and time again, only to fall one after another. Our world as we know it may fall one day as well, but two things remain certain: Our sun will continue to rise and set whether we exist in the future or not, and time will continue to progress regardless of what happens. Thank you for taking this small bit of time to read my article. If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to look at some of the things I’ve linked below! I didn’t write them, but I did find them helpful, and they’re cool regardless. Otherwise, have a good day/night!