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There’s No Such Thing as a Dumb Question, part IX: What’s the Date Today?

Most governments and international organizations have adopted a standard calendar system. The Western Calendar is used for the purposes of business, politics, and international law. This however is not a total consensus. The world’s religions have different calendars, as do certain governments. According to North Korea’s glorious Juche calendar, this article was written in the year 104. Calendars are created using an array of  different methods, usually measuring a recurring phenomenon. This is why non-Christian holidays appear to “move” from year to year, they’re not fixed to the same calendar. In terms of geological or universal time, a single revolution of the Earth is inconsequential, yet to humans the difference is immense and must therefore be measured. As such, what’s the date today?

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It’s official policy on this blog to always refer to Best Korea with the adjective “glorious”

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Long will glorious Best Korea flourish with glorious Juche

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“Juche” is the official ideology of Best Korea, roughly translating as “self-reliance”, this is the glorious Juche Tower and Monument to Juche in glorious Pyongyang

The earliest calendars came from the cyclical nature of seasons, the sun and moon, as well as other occurrences in nature. The first codified calendars appeared in the Ancient Middle East. The first was likely in Sumeria. It was a lunar calendar based on twelve months, based on recurring constellations. It logically follows that as people became sedentary farmers and artisans fixed dates became more important. In a hunter-gatherer economy general weather periods are of greater concern, as opposed to specific dates. As people became sedentary, religions became codified and observances needed to be set. In addition, codifying the date was helpful economically, it made buying and selling easier and people can make delivery orders for example. Calendars were often set to lunar or solar cycles, but have historically been connected to other cyclical phenomena. The Ancient Egyptian calendar was based on the regular flooding of the Nile, which marked their growing season. Early non-Western calendars that are still in use are often religious ones. According to the the Jewish and Islamic calendars, this article was written in 5776 and 1437, respectively. There are many calendars from throughout history, and they used a variety of dating methods. How did the modern western calendar emerge?

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Amenhotep III wasn’t standing around on January 1, 1350 B.C. and say “gee I wonder what we’re counting down to”

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To which his Queen Tiye likely didn’t respond “I hope it’s worth it, it’s been a long time, pity we won’t get to see it though”

The calendar used by the Ancient Romans originally had ten months and 8-day weeks. The English month December came from the final month Decem, the Latin word for ten. The others were named for gods and festivities, and are also cognates of the English months. The Roman ten-month calendar received two new months under King Numa Pompilius, called Iuanarius and Februarius. Later, Julius Caesar changed the months of Sextilus and Quintilus to Julius and Augustus, for himself and his heir, Octavian Augustus. Caesar also realigned the year to avoid a seasonal drift. In addition, the Roman week was shortened to seven days. This was the Julian Calendar, and became predominant in Europe for the next 1,500 years. It is still used by many Eastern Orthodox Churches today. The seven-day week, and thus the Julian Calendar, was continued by the Christians as it coincidentally aligned with the Book of Genesis’ Seven Days of Creation. The days of the week in English, except for Saturday, are named for Germanic/Norse deities. The Roman days were named for their gods, so the system was reinterpreted with Germanic gods instead by those conquered by the Romans. Their use continued in languages such as English and German.

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Mani, God of the Moon

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Tyr, God of War

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Wotan, a.k.a. Odin, God of Wisdom and Poetry, King of the Germanic/Norse gods

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Thor, God of Storms

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Frigga/Frigg, Goddess of Love and wife of Odin, mother of Thor

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The Roman God Saturn because Dark Ages Germanic people didn’t really have a version of him but needed seven days

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and of course Sol, the Norse Sun Goddess, sister of Mani. The so-called Trudholm Chariot, believed to be a depiction of Sol’s.

The system for calculating years in the Christian world derives from Dionysius the Humble, a Scythian monk who concluded he was from the early 500’s. Using Roman records and the Gospel of Luke, Dionysius calculated that he was writing 525 years after the Nativity of Christ. Prior to this, Christians used several methods for year calculation. One was the “Anno Mundi“, the age of the Earth according to the Bible as determined by religious authorities. The other was a system devised during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, who was considered a tyrant and the year was to be changed. A.D. is shorthand for Anno Domini, Medieval Latin for “in the year of the Lord”. This term was popularized by the Medieval English Monk Bede (d. 735) in his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The use of the term “B.C.” appears to have emerged much later, from a translation of “ante Christi“, “Before Christ”, as it sounds oddly like “anti-Christ” in English, the earliest use of A.C. dates from the 1600’s in France.

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Dionysius the Humble, Latin: Dionysius Exiguus, the man who decided what year it is.

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Dionysius the Humble was also the less-fun Dionysius. The other Dionysius, standing, here depicted hanging out with Midas in a French Baroque painting.

The current Western dating system emerged quite gradually. Modern date calculation developed in the early Renaissance. Before, saints’ days were often used in official documents. In Medieval terms, this article was written on the Feast of Saint Eulalia. This system is still used by Christian Churches, but varies across Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant lines. Vestigial aspects remain in common usage, such as St. Patrick’s and St. Valentine’s Days. Dionysius’ chronology was not immediately universal, either. The Anno Mundi was still used by many church scholars late into the 1600s and was sometimes recalculated. In 1647, James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh calculated the date cited by many modern Young Earth Creationists today. Years were also reckoned using the reigns of kings and queens. The phrase “time immemorial” derives from a 1275 Normano-English legal statute regarding property. Legally speaking, “time immemorial” is before the 6th of July, 1189, the date of the coronation of King Richard I. The shift towards the pagan, vernacular system was brought about by late Medieval merchants for the simple reason that it was much more easy to use. Remembering each saint’s feast day is difficult, and using monarchs’ reign lengths makes it difficult to conduct foreign business. This change seems to have happened rather quickly. In the play Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare used the phrase “today is called the Feast of Crispin” in a pivotal moment. The scene is before a battle and King Henry gives his soldiers a stirring speech, telling them they will always remember the Feast of Crispin. Shakespeare intended to add an air of importance and historicity with this phrase. While stirring to our and Elizabethan ears, the phrase would be heard as “today is called October the 25th” by a soldier at the Battle of Agincourt, the depicted battle, only two generations earlier.

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Saint Eulalia was the patron saint of torture victims, shown here being martyred by the Romans, who are dressed as Medieval Dutch people for some reason.

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Saints Crispin and Crispian, mentioned in the speech, were also patrons of cobblers. Not exactly militant, patriotic figures.

A final important shift in the Western Calendar came with the Council of Trent in 1563. This was when the Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendars split. Importantly, “The Great Schism” which split the churches themselves came much earlier. Pope Gregory XIII and his Cardinals noticed the date of Easter was shifting gradually due to leap years, and a fixed date set to Passover needed to be approved. In addition, January 1st, the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ in the liturgical calendar, was made official as the new year, like the Julian Calendar. Hitherto, individual parishes determined Easter based on full moons, and observation of the New Year varied. Creating the Gregorian Calendar was a complicated process, involving the work of early astronomer Tycho Brahe to determine the Vernal Equinox. This was part of the Counter-Reformation, an attempt by the Church to stem the tide of Protestantism. Many countries which adopted the teachings of the Reformation were slow to adopt the Gregorian Calendar due to its Catholic origin. Britain did so in 1752, and had before observed New Years on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation. Today however most non-Christian countries use the Gregorian calendar, at least for official purposes. Only a handful of countries have not done so, usually for political or religious reasons.

V0017407 The circumcision of Christ. Oil painting after Hendrik Goltz

Obviously the three things that come to mind when I think of New Years are champagne, kisses at midnight, and the Holy Foreskin of Christ.

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If you’re interested in seeing the Holy Foreskin of Christ, you ought to visit Lazio, in Italy. Eat the fabulous food. Take in breath-taking mountain vistas and quaint Medieval villages. And to top it all off, a dried up old Middle Eastern foreskin, which may or may not have come from Jesus. The village church has the formerly Vatican-approved Holy Foreskin. A Flemish noble had purchased two purported Holy Foreskins (just in case, you know?) in the early 1100’s, causing theological dispute. The Cult of the Holy Foreskin became a target of mockery for the Protestant Reformers, obviously. In 1900, the Vatican decreed anyone would be excommunicated if they mentioned or wrote about the Holy Foreskin. Vatican II quietly dropped this and renamed the Feast of the Holy Circumcision as New Years.

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Sort of makes you think why so many countries kept observing New Years on the Feast of the Annunciation, when Mary learns she’s pregnant. Also, it was on March 25th, nice time really, spring time and all that, and it celebrates a baby being conceived, not you know, circumcision.

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Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?

Dates and calendars are complicated things, and vary widely across cultures and societies. They are often reckoned using a mixture of science, history, religion, politics, and mere convention. Certain systems calculate time in terms of cycles, rather than linearly from a specific event. This is a radically different conception of time, history, and the universe. It also reflects a different view of humanity. If time is cyclical we’re doomed to repeat ourselves, while linear time implies we can learn from our mistakes and possess free will. A calendar reflects a society’s culture, history, and its view of time itself. Largely, except for religious purposes, the Gregorian Calendar has come to dominate the world. Exceptions to this rule have included Revolutionary France and Cambodia under Pol Pot, who set the year to 0, and of course North Korea’s glorious Juche calendar, adopted in 1997 and reckons time from the birth of Kim Il Sung. This short list also includes theocratic-based governments, such as Wahhabi Saudi Arabia or Hindu Nepal. People do everything for a reason, so even a simple question such as “what’s the date today” might have a very complex answer.

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