Calendars, Cultures and Politics

In the absolute sense, time is dictated by the rhythms of nature as determined by the Creator. In the past it was viewed as the distance in history (as opposed to geography) between events. In that mindset, the idea of saving time was ludicrous. Time progressed at its own rate and rhythm and man could do nothing to change those realities. Ancients often wanted tasks to be quick and efficient just like moderns do, and for many of the same reasons, to maximize the duration of pleasant experiences and minimize that of unpleasant ones. However, in the ancient mind time was not like money, which could be stored. It had to be used.

Calendars are a way of dividing time into days, fortnights (14 days), and years. They are unnecessary in hunter-gatherer societies but are vital in agricultural societies. Calendars require reading, and in many ways form the foundation on which math is built. They allow man to track the weather, record planting dates, and schedule religious festivals. Calendars allow travelers to track long trips, and help coordinate the movements of merchants with their caravans and generals with their armies. This article is a brief summary of calendars in world history, and how people use them to reflect themselves.

The idea that time can be divided has endured from the beginning of humanity. The movement of sun and moon divide time into roughly equal segments. These segments are known as days, fortnights, and years. The idea that time is linear, not circular, makes counting years important. It was no longer adequate to welcome a new year; royal bureaucrats labeled them “the first year of King XXXX”, “the third year of King YYYY”, etc. The invention of the clock in Medieval Europe brought the idea that time could be divided not only by natural rhythms but by human ones.  Combined, these ideas give modern man his view of time.

Since nations must cooperate with each other in trade and other areas, all modern countries measure their days as 24 hours long and fortnights as 14 days long. Years are also more or less than same all over the globe. Other characteristics of measuring time, such as the names of months and years, the location of holidays on the calendar, and the identity of the first year, are highly political.

The Julian calendar was instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC to align dates for military and economic purposes in the Roman Republic (509-27 BC). Extending from modern Portugal to Syria and Belgium to Egypt, the Republic confronted a bewildering array of calendars, including the original Roman calendar, and Greek, Egyptian, and Persian ones. Astronomers and mathematicians had long known that a year was 365.25 days long, but only with this period of peace imposed by Roman arms (Pax Romana) did anyone have the power to align the disparate time systems. Though technically Caesar’s reforms applied only to the Roman calendar, within a century calendars in other provinces of the Empire aligned themselves with his. Since the previous Roman year was only 355 days, 46 BC had to be extended for several weeks to allow 45 BC to begin on 1 January. Having 12 months, 365 days and an additional day every three or four years, the Julian calendar became the standard in the Roman and later, Western world.

In 1582 the Gregorian Calendar, which made small improvements to its Julian ancestor, was adopted throughout the European world, which included the colonies in North and South America, India and the trading islands of the Pacific. Since the 16th century marked the beginning of European global domination, by the 20th century, every nation on earth used the Gregorian calendar, at least internationally. The Gregorian calendar remains the most common calendar worldwide.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar or luni-solar calendar, not a solar one, and includes 12 months with 354 days. The first year is 621, the year Muhammad and his few followers escaped Mecca to Medina. It is used for religious purposes and to date certain events. The abbreviation is AH (Latin Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijra”). Authors writing about Islam, for example, will often use two dates in their work. The first surviving evidence of use of this calendar is AD 643/AH 22. Islamic calendars differ throughout the world, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia using slightly different versions.

Other calendars abound, largely for religious and political purposes. The Hebrew Calendar is a luni-solar calendar used predominantly for Jewish religious observances.  The French Revolutionary Clock and Calendar were used from 1793 to 1805. Its purposes were to convert France to a decimal system and remove all traces of religion and royalty from French life.  In the North Korean (Juche) Calendar the first year is 1912, the birth year of the “Eternal Ruler” Kim Il Sung. It officially replaced the Gregorian calendar in North Korea on 9 September 1997 (Juche 86). Day and month stay the same but the year is calculated by subtracting 1912 from the current year.

Russia retained the Julian Calendar (orthodox version) until 14 Feb 1918. After the communists took over in November of that year, they developed the Soviet Union Calendar and implemented it from 1929-1940. In keeping with Communist efforts at modernization and productivity, it implemented continuous 5 and 6 day work weeks, unlike the interrupted seven day week (Sundays off) in the Western World.

These are only a few of the many calendars that have been and are being used around the world. Calendars must be aligned to foster trade, communication and security within and between regions. However, they are also a reflection of the times and the people that implement them. Different peoples celebrate different holidays at different times. Even using a Gregorian calendar, New Years in the West is 1 January, but in Iran it is Nowruz (the first day of Spring), 19, 20, 21 or 22 March.

While no man can change time, every people has used its calendar to reflect its religion, politics, culture, and values. Having begun millennia ago, it is not likely to change now. While continuing to follow a standard to facilitate the activity of the modern world, we can enjoy the individuality of people groups, past and present, by looking at their calendar.

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