The Gregorian New Year's Day
Syed Ashraf Ali :
People in almost every nook and corner of this world celebrate New Year's Day today. It is the first day of the 'English' calendar year. The word 'calendar' is derived from the Latin 'Kalendae' (Calends) and means literally, the day on which the accounts are due. It now refers to accounting, usually for civil purposes, of days and other divisions of time.
Although popularly known as an 'English' calendar, the system that we follow today to celebrate New Year's Day is the Gregorian calendar, worked out in the 1580s by Pope Gregory XIII in Italy. This calendar, used in almost all the world today, is undoubtedly a very accurate system of measuring and recording the passage of time. It leads to an error of 1 day only in 3330 years. The system is so useful and accurate that various proposals for further reform have come to nothing.
The Gregorian calendar, which blesses us with the New Year's Day today, has a long and chequered history behind it.. Early men relied entirely on nature's timekeepers, the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. The daily apparent passage of the Sun across the sky provided the simplest and most obvious unit, the Solar Day. The seasons roughly indicated the length of another simple unit of time, the Solar Year. Early men were not aware of the fundamental cause of the seasons and the Earth's evolution around the Sun. But it was easy to see the changing position and shape of the Moon. As a result, most ancient calendars used the interval between successive full moons, the Lunar Month, as an intermediate measure of time. The months bridged the gap between the solar day and solar year. The Islamic calendar, beginning with the holy Prophet's (pbuh) historic Hijrat from Makka to Madina, is also based on this lunar system.
The principal problem in drawing up calendars arises from the fact that the solar Day, the lunar Month and the tropical Year - the most immediate natural time units - are not simple multiples of each other. In practice a solution is found in basing the system either on the phases of the Moon (Lunar calendar) or on the changing of the seasons (Solar calendar).
The difficulty that the days eventually get out of step with the Moon or the seasons is got over by adding in (intercalating) one or more extra days or months at regular intervals in an extended cycle' of months or years. The Babylonians developed a confusing calendar (based on intercalary month) that represented many primitive procedures. The Egyptians were probably the first people to adopt a predominantly solar calendar. They came to recognise a year of 365 days, made up of 12 months each 30 days long, with an extra 5 days added at the end of each year so that it approximated the tropical year of 365 days. But they did not allow for the extra quarter of a day, and their calendar slowly drifted into error. According to the famous Egyptologist J.H. Breasted, the earliest date known in the Egyptian Calendar corrresponds to 4236-B.C. in terms of our present-day system.
The Gregorian calendar that we follow today is a corrected version of the Roman calendar. The Romans apparently borrowed their first calendar from the Greeks and not from the Egyptians. Romulus, the legendary first ruler of Rome, is supposed to have introduced this calendar about 738 B.C. The earliest known Roman calendar consisted of 10 months and 304 days only. They seemed to have ignored the remaining 60 days, which fell in the middle of winter. The 10 months were named Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. The last six names were taken from the words for five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. To make it correspond to the solar year, the Romans added a short month of 22 or 23 days every second year.
The peculiar system was made all the more complicated with people sometimes adjusting the calendar to suit themselves.
One king adjusted Januaris and Februaris at the end of the year with the hope to collect more taxes during the extra months. Public officials used the months to stay longer in office. As a result, by the time of ,Julius Caesar, about 700 years later, the confusing calander was about three months ahead of the schedule fixed by the seasons.
It was in 46 B.C. that Julius Caesar asked the astronomer Sosigenes to review the calendar and suggest ways of improving it. Sosigenes rose to the occasion and came out with a good number of suggestions. Acting on Sosigenes' suggestions, Julius Caesar ordered the Romans to disregard the moon totally in calculating their calendars. He divided the year into 12 months of 31 and 30 days, except for February, which had only 29 days. Every fourth year it would have 30 days. He also moved the beginning of the year from March 1 to January 1 and it was this historic decision of Julius Caesar which made January 1 the New Year's Day. What is more, to realign the calendar with the seasons, Casear ruled that the year we know as 46 B.C. should have, 445 days and not 365 days. The Romans very rightly called it 'The Year of Confusion' .
The Romans renamed Quintilis to honour Julius Caesar, giving us our name July. The Emperor Augustus took the next month, Sextilis, and named it after him, giving us August. But Sextilis in those days had only 30 days. If July, honouring Julius Caesar, could have 31 days, why should August, named after another Caesar, be of 30 days only?
The solution was plain and simple. Augustus took a day from February and added it to August, so that it was of the same duration as that of July.
The calendar introduced by Julius Caesar, known as Julian Calendar, was widely used for more than 1500 years. It provided for a year that lasted 365 days and was actually about 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the solar year. The small difference, however, led to a gradual change in the seasons, and by 1580, it had accumulated to 10 days. As a result, the Spring Equinox fell on March 11, or 10 days earlier than it should.
It was in 1582 that the Pope Gregory XIII corrected, on the advice of astronomers, the difference between Sun and calendar and blessed us with the present Gregorian Calendar. To make necessary corrections, the Pope ordered 10 days to be dropped from October, 1582. As a result, the day that would have been October 5, 1582 suddenly became October 15, 1582. Although the people were taken aback, the 'strange' decision restored the next Equinox to its proper date. To correct the Julian Calendar's errors regularly and make it foolproof, the Pope also decreed that the month of February would not have an extra day in century years that could not be divided by 400, such as 1700.
The corrections made the Gregorian calendar so accurate that the difference between the calendar year and the solar year is now only about 26.3 seconds. This will, however, increase by 0'53 second every hundred years, because the solar year is growing shorter. By the year 4316 A.D., the Gregorian calendar will have gained one day on the Sun.
But in spite of this remarkable accuracy people in Europe did not accept the new system immediately. Although the Roman Catholic nations of Europe switched over to the new system almost immediately, the non-Catholic countries were very slow in adopting the Gregorian calendar they could not, perhaps, reconcile with the idea of losing 10 days from their calendar so easily. Some countries including Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, did not accept the Gregorian calendar until 1700. Britain took a few years more to recognise it and changed to this new system only in 1752.
But to do this they had to suffer from a sudden "loss" of 10 + 1 .11 days (the additional 1 day was due to the non-Leap year 1700 (which was not divisible by 400). The people of Britain thought that they were actually "robbed of' 11 days as September 2 suddenly jumped to September 14, 1752, and the eleven days between Sept. 2 and Sept. 14 were 'lost'. They brought out processions in London protesting against the 'historic theft', and cried, "Give us back our 11 days".
Only five years later, the Battle of Plassey was fought in 1757, and through the active patronage of the East India Company, the Gregorian calendar crept into this sub-continent slowly but steadily. As a result, almost all of us accept the Gregorian Calendar and celebrate today, the first day of the year.
(Late Syed Ashraf Ali was one of our contributors