Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hail, Caesar!

Vestige of the Roman empire

Here we are at the end of February, the truncated month that picks up a measly 29th day in leap years. No wonder some people feel a bit shorted that February was designated Black History Month. Stingy!

What happened to February anyway? Our modern-day February is a vestige of the power of imperial Rome. It hardly seems fair that the whims of the emperors should have such a persistent impact on us after a couple of thousand years. While the numbering system (“anno Domini”) we use is the heritage of an early Christian miscalculation, the plundered state of February may stand as witness to Rome's insistence on padding out July and August, the months named in honor of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar.

February was a poor stepchild from the very beginning, apparently have been treated cavalierly whenever the Julian calendar got out of step with the seasons. February could be shortened or, contrariwise, supplemented with an “incalary” month, a block of time whose sole purpose was to realign the months with the seasons. Julius Caesar promulgated a calendar reform that reduced the capricious way in which the months were treated, but February remained underappreciated.

While we cannot be certain exactly what happened to February, it is certainly true that July (formerly known as “Quintilis” and August (formerly known as “Sextilis”) ended up with 31 days, ranked among the longest of the months and thus suitable tributes to Julius and Augustus.

Eventually the Julian reforms proved inadequate and Pope Gregory XIII took another crack at calendar-making in the sixteenth century. Although the Protestant reformation caused many nations to resist the pope's innovation, the Gregorian calendar was in use in most countries (Russia a notable exception) by the eighteenth century. The Gregorian calendar is still the one that we use today.

While the Gregorian calendar is better than the Julian calendar, it's not exactly perfect. A reform effort in the twentieth century came up with the World Calendar, a perpetual calendar in which January 1 always begins the year on a Sunday. Each calendar quarter has 91 days in it, the monthly triplets being grouped in the pattern 31-30-30 for their lengths. In leap years, an intercalary day is inserted at the end of June, having neither day of the week or date. This “Leapyear Day” would be designated “W” (for “World”). This would still make the calendar a day short, so another “W” day would be inserted at the end of each December. I daresay that this second W would be called “New Year's Eve,” taking that honor away from December 31.

The date for Easter would presumably still wander about the calendar, but except for movable feasts, the World Calendar would be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. According to the World Calendar Association, 2012 would be the ideal year for introduction of the World Calendar. That year will begin on Sunday, January 1, anyway, so the transition would be seamless.

I don't think it's going to happen, though. Religious types will object to the breaking of the sacred seven-day pattern. The “World” designation smacks of collectivist intent, and the general inertia of the population will prevent the World Calendar from getting a hearing.

So Leapyear Day babies cannot expect to have a calendar that includes an annual February 29 (and 30!). Not going to happen.


Anonymous said...

But 364 is an awkward number. If we went to 360... we could have quarterly World Days, automatic holidays.

Think of the salutory effect on science education... we could at the same time (2012), do a quick shift, so that the W's hit the solstices and equinoxes...hmm, shifting months back 10 days could cause confusion... maybe need a set of 12 fresh names?


The Ridger, FCD said...

Not just religious types. A week is a convenient amount to hold in your head and plan around.

Anonymous said...

I'm for the Ancient Egyptian calendar: a year of 360 days, divided to 12 30-day months, plus 5 "extra days" that are not counted in any month. In leap years we could have 6 extra days.