Many people ring in the New Year with a sense of both closure and new beginnings. As one year closes out, a new one begins. The commencing of a New Year often is seen as a “fresh start” with the making of resolutions and goals for the coming 12 months.
But why do we wait until January 1st and what is so special about that date? After all, it is just one of 365 days in the year – well, most years anyway. In fact, for hundreds of years before our current calendar was in use, the new year began in March. Though it was not celebrated as it is today, church leaders were concerned about revelries so close to the holy day of Easter, and thus when the new Gregorian calendar emerged so did an “updated” New Year’s Day.
The calendar we use today is taken for granted by many of us. It is all we have ever known, and it is inexorably intertwined with our daily lives. Can you imagine not knowing what day it is, or month? Actually, that sounds kind of nice. Practically speaking though, we all need to be “on the same page” when it comes to tracking time, otherwise chaos would surely ensue.
Our current calendar, known as the Gregorian Calendar, has been in use for nearly 500 years. Before that time, the Julian Calendar had been the preferred timetable for over 100 years. What was changed, and for what reason? Without getting too deep into the nuances of 16th century religion and astronomy, two relatively straightforward reasons: Easter and leap years.
Pope Gregory XIII, whom the calendar was named for, proposed a new calendar in 1582 primarily to stop the “Easter drift.” Nominally, Easter occurs on March 21st, but due to lunar cycles Easter actually falls within a range of days. With the old Julian calendar, Easter began to move further away from the actual spring equinox to which it was originally tied to, and this was not acceptable by many including the Church.
As one may imagine, especially given the times, many looked upon the new calendar as a “Catholic” imposition. Protestant and Eastern Orthodox countries were especially leery of the change, and initially resisted. To placate those who weren’t interested in change from a religious standpoint, the Catholic Church also pointed that the old method incorrectly calculated leap years. The Julian calendar assumed a leap year every four years, but that was not quite accurate. In fact, it should be slightly less than that, so the Gregorian calendar also added a slight twist to the leap year calculation.
It was determined that leap years should be every four years with the caveat that every 100-years we skip a leap year unless the year is divisible by 400. Using this math, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 was since it is divisible by 400. This might not seem like much, but astronomers like to be very precise and the added scientific element to the change made it easier for non-Catholics to accept a new calendar.
One can only imagine the disruption that introducing a new calendar to the world might cause. For starters the calendar was advanced 10 days when adopted. So, Thursday October 4th, 1582, was followed by Friday October 15th, 1582. Just like that, 10 days were gone in an instant. Despite the fact that the “science” behind the change made sense, not everyone was on board.
For example, Germany did not adopt the new calendar until 1700 and England 1752. Even later to the party were Greece and Tur- key, which did not officially adopt the Gregorian calendar until the 1920’s - over 300 years after the initial change.
Eventually, the world came around and embraced the Gregorian calendar. It has been pointed out that in roughly 3000 years we may need another similar shift in our calendar to allow for the slight imperfections in the current one. I don’t imagine many people are working on this new calendar just yet, but for astronomers, every little error needs to be accounted for.
The science behind calendars is an important one. Nearly every aspect of our lives is intimately tied to the measuring and recording of accurate time. Cell phones, navigation and television, among many others, would not exist as we know them without a rigorous, systematic process, intricately tied to the ancient art of timekeeping.