01 January 2012

LIFE: It's a New Day, It's a New Year

SARONNO, Italy – Happy New Year – I think it’s the 1st of January and the beginning of a new year, but then again this is Italy and not everything is what it seems to be. Think I'm kidding? Well just ask those who still follow the Julian calendar and they’ll tell you today isn’t January 1st at all, but December 21st.

Not to get too embroiled in this topic, suffice to say that for centuries the then known world – i.e. the Roman Empire – operated on a calendar, called the Julian calendar after the Holy Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. It was made up of 355 days divided into 12 months, with extra time added every four years. During the leap year, an intercalary month was sometimes inserted between February and March, which meant that 22 or 23 days were added to the year, creating an intercalary year of 377 or 378 days. 

But, not quite.  For eight years out of 24, there were only three years with 377 days. This made the year longer by 365 ¼ days over the 24 year period. In addition, this adding and subtracting of days was not done on a fixed schedule, instead it was decided by the Pope. The Pope could put a few days in every second or third year if he wanted to, but there was no law that said he had to.

Julian Calendar
The problem was that the Popes were also politicians and could, and often would, change the calendar to suit their needs, sometimes at the last minute. This meant that the average Roman citizen was never really sure what the date was, especially if he was away from home and not getting the latest news bulletins from Rome on what day it was. You can see why the last years of the Julian calendar were known as the years of confusion. 

This really became a big problem in 63-46 BC, when there were only five intercalary months when there should have been eight, and none at all during the five Roman years before 46 BC. To appreciate the problem, let me just say that according to the official calendar Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC,  but the official calendar was so messed up he actually crossed the Rubicon months before that, in mid-autumn.
 Pope Gregory XIII

Enter Pope Gregory. The Pope’s chief astronomer Christopher Clavius reasoned that the problem was that the Julian calendar was too long. It gave each year 365 days of 6 hours in length. According to his calculations the actual average year was closer to 365 days, 5 hours and 49 minutes long. 

So the Pope, being a man of action, decreed that the day after Thursday, 4 October 1582 would not be Friday, 5 October, 1582, but Friday 15 October, 1582. He then declared the Julian calendar dead, long live the Gregorian calendar. 
Gregorian Calendar
If I were to tell you that everyone welcomed the new calendar with open arms, I would be fibbing. People were bitterly opposed to losing an entire week, but after a little arm twisting the Catholic countries, Spain, Portugal, Poland and Italy went along with it. Some of the others, France, a few of the states of the Dutch Republic and some of the Catholic states in Germany and Switzerland continued to resist, but within a year, they also complied.

The Protestant countries were a little more difficult to convince. It took some of them more than a century to come around and some of them didn’t adopt the new calendar until the 1700’s. By this time they were 11 days behind the Catholics. Great Britain and the American Colonies finally gave in in 1752, where Wednesday, 2 September 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday, 14 September, 1752. The last holdout, Sweden, finally got on board on 1 March, 1753.
Old Father Time Tarot Card
Over the next couple of hundred years the reluctance to conform continued, especially in parts of the world dominated by the Christian Orthodox church. It took the Russian Bolsheviks to finally institute the calendar in Russia in 1917, and the Romanians only accepted it when their King Ferdinand decreed it law in 1919. They were most unhappy that 1 November 1919 was suddenly transformed into 14 November 1919 but they were not about to argue with their King. The last Orthodox countries to accept the Gregorian calendar were Turkey and Greece, both in 1923.

And there are still holdouts. Some Orthodox churches still used the Julian calendar for fixed feast days, while using the Gregorian calendar for the rest of the time, and the Berber people of North Africa and on Mount Athos have never given in and continue to use the Julian calendar to this day. Must be fun when they are trying to book airline reservations. 

So now that you know all the trials and tribulations your new 2012 calendar has been through, you might want to hang it in an exalted position that it deserves, say over the fireplace, instead of tacking it up out behind the garage door. I’m just kidding, of course.  Happy New Year!

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