Calendar Daze

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The beginning of a new year; out with the old calendar and in with a fresh, clean not-yet-written-in new one. Twelve more fresh months; a clean slate to scribble upon. Calendars are important; they measure our time in neatly packaged thirty day – give or take – increments that tick off the time until we start it all over again.

I bought my 2010 calendar for the kitchen just in time – the day before the new year began. It features the artwork of Gustave Baumann, an American artist who specialized in woodcuttings during the early to mid 1900s. The replicas of his work in the calendar are gorgeous with lots of bold colors – reds, golds, oranges, and green.

I meant to reorder a calendar from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Their calendars are chock full of all kinds of interesting information. My calendar last year was The Old Farmer’s Almanac Weather Watcher’s 2009 Calendar. Every month contains a bit of folklore such as “When oak trees bend with snow in January, good crops may be expected,” weather facts and terminology like “what is a snow-eater?” (a Chinook wind off the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains), and weird weather occurrences that made history. For instance, do you know that on April 22 1932, it rained geese in Elgin, Manitoba? A flock of flying geese fell from the sky after it was struck by lightning. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a nice array of calendars for every interest. This year I thought I might try the Old Farmer’s Almanac Gardening Calendar, but never got around to ordering it.

I use a daily planner. Months broken down into pages of days; days broken down into lines of hours. I don’t use it as intended – I’ve kept planners for years, and have rarely written down appointment times, or important dates in them; those go on the big calendar in the kitchen. I use the planners mainly as a guideline as to what I want to get done in a day. Sometimes what I’ve written gets neatly ticked off just as the hands of a clock tick off the minutes. Other times, the list of what I want to get accomplished goes untouched, and gets moved to the following day. But it’s still there, waiting for the time I get around to crossing off each task.

The free pocket calendar from the dentist goes in my purse so I don’t end up with all kinds of scraps of paper in there with phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and book titles that people always end up giving me at the grocery store, my daughters’ schools, restaurants, or wherever I am when someone decides there’s a bit of information I must need. Then there’s the small desk top calendar from Botanical Interests Inc., a seed company we ordered our organic seed from at the nursery for next spring. This was promotional item given to me by the sales rep, but if you place a seed order of $50 with the company, they’ll send along a free calendar. Check them out; great seed, and the calendar is nifty too.

Speaking of nifty … what about a GRIT calendar; don’t you think it’d be neat? There would be garden preparation and spring planting tips in the early months; information of small town fairs festivals during the summer; harvest and storage tips in fall; and winter would have recipes of all those comfort foods that go so well with cold weather. Of course, throughout would be bits of trivia from the annals of GRIT history and those gorgeous shots of rural living taken by readers.

All of this is a dizzying array of ways to remember dates, and count down the days, but the calendar daze certainly did not begin with me. Man has been struggling with an accurate way to mark the passage of time since he first started to note the position of the moon, sun, and stars, and use them in relation to the seasons for the best times to plant, harvest, and record events. It wasn’t an easy task. Even the calendar year we use today is approximately 26 seconds longer than the Earth’s orbit – and in about 3,323 years our calendars will be off by a single day.

This is a far cry from our current calendar’s predecessors. It’s hard to pin-point a specific time period or culture in which the first calendar was invented. Ancient civilizations around the world used different cycles in nature to mark time. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, Mayans, and Babylonians based their calendars on the cycles of the moon. In order for the lunar calendar year to coincide with the solar year, the Babylonians added an extra month three times every eight years. To make things even more confusing, whenever the King decided the calendar was too far out of tune with the seasons, he decreed an extra month be added. The Egyptians are thought to be the first to formulate a calendar revolving around the solar year – an early precursor to our modern-day calendar.

As Rome became a world power, the Romans adopted Egypt’s use of the solar year, made a few tweaks, added in a heaping helping of superstition, and eventually came up with the Julian calendar, which is still in use in the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

The Babylonian calendar began with March – the month of the vernal equinox. And so began the Roman calendar, which only had ten months. This accounts for the names of the last four months of our year – September (septem or seventh), October (octo or eight), November, (novem or nine), and December (deci or ten). About seven hundred years B.C. the calendar was readjusted once again for the addition of the eleventh and twelfth months, January and February respectively; March continued to be the first month of the year with the first day of the year beginning on the vernal equinox.

The process of keeping an accurate calendar was complicated with the Roman belief that even numbers were unlucky; they made their months either 29 or 31 days long, with the exception of February, which had 28 days. Because of this even number superstition, the year added up to only 355 days. Ah, well … let’s just add in an extra month to make up for the difference. “Mercedonius” a month of either 22 or 23 days was added every other year.

Sound confusing? How’d you like to have the task of calendar making back then? It got worse before it got better. Even with that thirteenth month added in every other year, the Roman calendar got so far out of sync with the seasons, that Julius Caesar ordered a massive reform in 45 B.C. One year – one very long year of 445 days – brought the calendar back in line. This, no wonder, was called the “Year of Confusion.” The solar year then became the basis for the calendar, and the even number superstition was thrown out with the Roman bath water (no doubt over the left shoulder), thus making the year 365 days and 6 hours long, with months consisting of 30 or 31 days. An extra day was added every fourth year to take care of those 6 hours. Caesar also declared the year begin in January, and not on the vernal equinox.

This calendar – the Julian calendar, named after Caesar – up until that point, was by far the most accurate calendar in existence. We’re not quite there yet though. Errors in the Julian calendar made the year 111 minutes longer than the actual solar year. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot, until you start adding 111 minutes per year and multiplying it by centuries.

By the 15th century the Julian calendar lagged behind the solar calendar by approximately a week, making the vernal equinox fall on March 12 instead of around March 25th. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII implemented another calendar reform. Thursday, October 4th, 1582 was the last day of the Julian calendar. People went to bed that night, and didn’t wake up until October 15th … which was actually Friday, the following day. Sheesh – talk about losing track of days. The Gregorian calendar kept the four-year extra day rule that the Julian calendar had, but eliminated leap years in century years, (e.g. 1900 and 2000), unless the century year was divisible by 400. This made the calendar sufficiently accurate, and is what we use today.

Back to that GRIT calendar … is anybody in charge listening? See? All the hard work has already been done for you by the Egyptians, Romans, and papal authorities. All you have to do is add the pretty pictures and a few words. I bet it’d be a big seller; I know I’d buy one …

… if I marked it on my calendar as a reminder.