A date with destiny depends on your calendar

'As far as I can see we might all be better off adopting the Persian calendar.'

December 30, 2020 15:18

There was something about the Covid Christmas debacle that made the usual and mundane seem, on reflection, pretty absurd. Jews, of course, are used to living in a society that celebrates other holy days than theirs. Some of you have even been known to put up Christmas trees. For my part, my upbringing was so secular that I didn’t even know it WAS secular. Some things I lost from this, a few things I gained. One of the gains was an ability to see religions and their practices anthropologically — as in, why that and why then?

So when we had first the great “everything to be back to normal at Christmas” rhetorical tide, I sat back a bit and wondered at it. Clearly the virus wasn’t going to take time out to celebrate with its family. Nor is observance of Christmas as a religious event requiring feasting a big thing with many in these islands. In which case, why take this absurd risk?

And once embarked upon these thoughts took flight. Why did Christmas have to be celebrated on December 25 at all? The pedantic among you will know that this is a date on the Gregorian calendar. But if Jesus was born at all according to the timetable devised by Christian teaching, he was born according to the Julian calendar. Or the Hebrew calendar, which we will return to.

The Julian calendar was devised (with Greek help) by Julius Caesar and introduced across the nascent Empire by edict in 46 BCE. But Christianity not then existing, its key religious dates were not set until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. And, when it came to Easter, not even then.

But like most calendars, over time the dates tend not to correspond to the seasons. The Julian was one of the best then devised at avoiding this “drift” but not at all perfect. By the 1580s the papacy felt unable to ignore the problem of slippage, with the spring equinox now falling on March 10 not 21. Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers calculated that they needed to change the calculation of the length of a year slightly and also to make a one-off adjustment. So Catholics went to bed on the night of Thursday 4 October 1582 and woke up on the morning of Friday 15 October. The actual day, therefore, on which Catholics celebrated Christmas Day that year was ten days earlier than the year before. And somehow they survived.

The Protestants saw it as a papist scheme. As with decimalisation, the conservative saw it as a plot to charge more rent. The Orthodox saw it as unorthodox. Britain didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar till 1752, when we lost 11 whole days to catch up with the French. Imagine how that would go down now. Russia went Gregorian after the great October Revolution (which would otherwise be in November) and Greece in 1923. The Orthodox church still celebrates Christmas Day on January 7.

So before 1752 in Britain December 14 was December 25 and December 25was January 5. Which day Jesus was actually born on (if born at all) is moot and moveable.

Of course, if he was born he was born according to the old Hebrew calendar. In which case we are in even more trouble. As you know, unlike the sun and season worshippers of Rome, the Jews opted for a lunar calendar and there are 12.4 lunar months in the solar year. Without adjustments that means a big drift away over time from dates correlating to seasons. So in the mid 4th century CE good old Hillel II devised a calendar in which the entire month of Adar gets repeated seven times in a 19 year cycle. Mapping that on to what went before (when exactly was the Second Temple?) has proved a lovely past-time for the most pedantic Jews. But for everyone else? Which may explain why no other religious or ethnic group has opted to use it.

Other calendars are available. The Islamic calendar is an unadjusted lunar calendar so its months lose their relationship with the seasons. One of the two used on the island of Bali and based on rice production cycles has a 210 day year divided into six months and weeks that run concurrently and vary between one and ten days in length.

But as far as I can see we might all be better off adopting the Persian calendar. It’s a solar calendar and consists of 12 months of which the first half have 31 days, the next five have 30 and the last one has 29 or 30 in a leap year. Much easier to remember than “30 days hath September” (which I actually had to look up) and new year’s day — so sensible — begins on the spring equinox.

Whatever we do or choose though, insisting that a certain date has become so sacrosanct in itself, that it’s worth risking lives for, really does take some explaining.

December 30, 2020 15:18

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