by Jay Johansen | Oct 25, 1995
Let me begin by pointing out what's wrong with our current calendar, and then I will offer what I believe to be a superior alternative. (By the way, rather than interrupt the flow of thought in the following article with tangential details, I've put some notes about our present calendar at the end.)
This leads naturally to a bigger question, Why do we need leap years?
At this point I'm sure many people will begin to patiently explain to me that we need leap years to keep the calendar in sync with the actual movement of the earth. It takes the earth slightly more than 365 days to go around the sun, but not 366, so we have to accumulate those fractional days until they add up to a whole day, which we then add on to the current year. If we didn't have leap years, then our calendar would not quite match the true solar year.
To which I reply: So what? In what sacred text is it written that our calendar year must match the solar year?
Suppose we just abandoned leap years. The seasons would start about one day sooner every four years. If we did this tomorrow, then someone born today would find that if he lives to be 70 or so, over the course of his life the beginning of winter would move from late December to early December. In real life the weather we associate with a season does not begin suddenly at the exact date and time defined to be the first day of the season. That is, just because winter officially begins at 4:33 pm on December 23 in a certain year doesn't mean that before that time temperatures will be moderate and weather calm but at exactly that moment the temperature will plummet to 40 below and a blizzard will begin. So if the beginning of the season moves by a few days few people will notice. As the movement would be gradual over one's lifetime, it would have no noticable impact on the lives of most people.
About the only time the average person would be likely to notice would be when reading history. It might well become the sort of trivia that people quote to show off to their friends and family, like: "George," she said, nodding her had sadly, "Of course it was winter when the Germans invaded Russia. Don't you know that winter started in December back then? I thought you went to college ..."
Presumably people whose lives are intricately tied up with the seasons would notice. Most obviously this would mean farmers, to a lesser degree ranchers and loggers, maybe some others. But even at that, I don't know a lot about farming, but I doubt that farmers slavishly plant crops on a certain day of the year -- I'm sure they take the current weather conditions and other factors into account. To add one tiny extra step to a farmer's calculation of when to plant seems a small price to pay.
When I bring this subject up in conversation now and then, someone will inevitably say, "It's for the farmers. They need an extra hour each day of daylight to plant and harvest their crops." To which I reply, Excuse me? Surely if there is any occupational group which is not tied to a timeclock, it is farmers. I really have difficulty imagining a farmer out there in his tractor working the fields, saying, "Wow, I've got so much more work to do today if I'm going to get this crop in, so we have it harvested in time to bring to market so we don't go broke and lose the farm and the house and our life savings, but ... it's five o'clock, quitting time, I've got to call it a day."
If an extra hour of daylight after school or work is good in the summer, why isn't is also good (or at least harmless) in the winter? Why not just set the clocks one way or the other and leave them there?
Or if people find it convenient to change their schedules over the course of the year, why not just let them do it? If I want to get up at 6:00 some morning instead of 7:00, I don't reset my clock, I just reset the alarm.
Each day is 24 hours. Each week is seven days. (No change there.) Each month is exactly four weeks, or 28 days. Each year is 13 months, or 52 weeks, or 364 days. The first day of the year is Sunday, January 1. Period.
Note the simplicity. Every day is exactly the same length. (Daylight savings time results in one day each year being 23 hours and one being 25.) We never have to worry about setting clocks backwards or forwards, or being early or late because we or someone else forget to fix the clock.
Every month is exactly the same length. No more need to waste brain cells remembering little rhymes like "30 days hath September ...". Bills which come monthly are always for the same amount of time. People who are paid monthly or twice a month no longer have to juggle just when the next payday falls and how it is affected by weekends. People who are paid weekly or biweekly no longer have to worry about the mismatch between their pay schedule and their monthly bills. (Most big bills -- mortgage, loan payments, utilities -- come monthly.)
Every year is exactly the same length. No more worrying about leapyears.
As every month is exactly four weeks, a week is never split between months. The first is always a Sunday. Indeed, Sunday always falls on the 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd; Monday is always the 2nd, 9th, 16th, and 23rd; etc. If you have a meeting on the third Tuesday of each month, for example, that is always the 17th. If election day is the day after the first Monday in November (not the first Tuesday, mind you, the difference being if the first is a Tuesday), that is always November 3.
Computations with dates are dramatically simpler. How many days from January 12 and April 24? It's three months and twelve days, three times twenty-eight plus twelve equals 96 days. Okay, multiplying by 28 may be hard to do in your head but it's a lot easier than adding up how many days in each month in between and rembering to consider whether or not February is a leapyear. For people who work with dates constantly, like people who do loan amortizations, managers who plan schedules, and computer programmers, it would save substantial effort.
By the way, for those who fret over such a radical departure from tradition, perhaps I can throw them one concession: I'm proposing we have 13 months. I suggest we call the new month "Meridinus". This was the old Roman 13th month, before Julius Ceasar abolished it when he created his own calendar. So see, we wouldn't be abandoning tradition, we'd be restoring it!
The situation is different for Jews. All Jewish holidays except Hannukah do come straight from the Torah, and God gave specific dates for them. Whether God considers this important or not is an open question. But then, we don't generally use the Jewish calendar today anyway, so the issue is largely moot. If Jews felt it appropriate to continue to celebrate their holidays by the Jewish calendar rather than the "new" calendar, they would simply have a different set of translations. Indeed, I might point out that the Torah does not explicitly link these holidays to any particular calendar. In most cases it doesn't even mention the names of months. Rather, most dates are given as "the tenth day of the seventh month" and the like. I don't find anything that says how long these months should be. Yes, God did say that the month in which the Israelis escaped from Egypt -- the month of Abib -- was to be the first month in their calendar. Maybe we could make the first month of this new calendar coincide with Abib, and everybody would be happy.
I confess ignorance regarding other religion's holidays.
Note that the one time period which is specifically established by God in the Bible is the seven-day week, and in my proposal I retain this. I don't know if God would insist on keeping this or not, but there's no point in asking for trouble!
This leads to an interesting historical anecdote. Under the calendar invented by Julius Caeser, called the "Julian calendar", the rule was the simple every-fourth-year. But Pope Gregory later modified the calendar to the more complex rule described above, called the "Gregorian calendar". Most of Europe adopted the new Gregorian calendar, but England did not. Over time the calendar in England became more and more different from that of the rest of Europe. (I suppose the situation was analogous to America's present wrestling with our measurements versus the metric system.) Eventually the English decided to switch over. They decided that September 2, 1752 in England and the colonies (which was September 13, 1752 in most of the rest of the world), would be followed by September 14. This prompted Ben Fraklin to write, "It is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14."
By the way, I once read (I can't find the reference so I don't stand behind this, but it sounds believable), that even though September 1752 was only 19 days long, landlords calmly charged a full month's rent.
© 1995 by Jay Johansen