By Victoria Mullen
So, there I was, just minding my own business pondering where the gray walls end and the gray skies begin, when Easter happened. I turned my head and when I looked back—poof!—people were all decked out in their Sunday finest, and there were countless clusters of chocolate bunnies and little baskets festooned with eggs and jelly beans snuggled in colorful nesting material.* More chocolate bunnies. Even more of them. Plus those peculiar curiosities called “peeps.”
Easter took me by surprise, I must admit, because I’m never prepared for it. The fault is not mine but that of full moons and equinoxes. I come from a family of Greek Orthodox people, which means “my” Easter quite likely isn’t yours. The date of Greek Orthodox Easter is determined by the Julian calendar, and it can vary wildly from one year to the next. It’s kind of cool except most other people use the Gregorian calendar. When I am asked what I’m doing for Easter, I say that I have no idea. Because I never know when it is.
(Wait. What?) OK, I’ve just been told that my Easter is scheduled for May 1 this year. But will there be any chocolate bunnies left?
A calendar by any other name
The calendar’s purpose is to keep people rooted somewhat in reality. Calendars tell us when we have to work, when to vote, when to go to church, when to celebrate a holiday, when to observe Thanksgiving and other feasts—you name it. Without calendars, surely humankind would be cast adrift, lost forever in contemplation and confusion.
Einstein really nailed it when he said that time is relative, because it seems that no one can agree on using just one method to keep track of days, weeks and months. There are many, many calendars.
Western civilians currently use the Gregorian calendar, which improved upon the Julian calendar (the source of “my” Easter), which had improved upon the Roman calendar. And then there are a multitude of different religious calendars, many of which disagree that we are even living in the year 2016.
Depending on the calendar, today is whatever day you’re reading this (Gregorian) or minus 13 days (Julian). By way of example, pretend that I’m writing this on the 12th of March (three days before the Ides). If we use the Julian calendar, I’m writing this on the 29th of February (assuming it’s 2016), which is a leap year day, all the better to confuse the issue.
Of moons and equinoxes and rotation
Putting together an accurate calendar is not for the faint of heart. It requires meticulous musings, knowledge of the phases of the moon and equinoxes, and the rotation of the earth. It also requires people with nothing better to do than argue over an overabundance of calculations. Key point: In the end, they must all agree. And we know how well that usually works out.
We want to control everything. It’s human nature. But despite this irrational obsession, the universe always has the final say. In the case of calendars, the earth’s rotation refuses to conform to a man-made system of measurement. Just when you think you have it under control, you find that you don’t.
Trying to tame time
Before the dawn of civilization, ancient peoples had no need for wall calendars, Blackberries and day planners. By monitoring the phases of the moon and observing weather patterns, these peoples knew when to plant crops, when to migrate, when to harvest crops, etc.
Enter the Romans, who demanded predictability. Mental illness—obsessive-compulsiveness, specifically—influenced the matter, and politics played a huge role as well. Some would argue that politics and mental illness are mutually exclusive, but this matters not because of at least one immutable fact: Credit for the invention of the original Roman calendar goes to Romulus, the first king of Rome, at around 753 BCE (Before Common Era). Scholars think it may have been a lunar calendar, but it was so fraught with flaws that this remains uncertain.
The Roman calendar began the year with a month that could be construed as a call to action—March (Martius). The calendar consisted of 10 months, with six months of 30 days and four months of 31 days. The winter season was not assigned to any month, so the calendar year only lasted 304 days with 61 days unaccounted for in the winter. Basically, winter was ignored.
I am not a fan of winter and would prefer to ignore it, too, but if everybody did that, many, many retail and online stores would go out of business. The economy would take a dive. More people would plunge into poverty.
Besides, it seems a bit extreme. Animals in the wild don’t ignore winter, they hibernate. As they sleep they are blissfully unaware, but winter exists nonetheless. Wild creatures don’t use calendars, and they’ve gotten by just fine over the centuries.
Predictably, the earth’s rotation would not cooperate, and as expected, the 304-day Roman calendar didn’t work for long because it didn’t align with the seasons. King Numa Pompilius—and, seriously, who burdens a kid with such a name?—reformed the calendar around 700 BCE by adding the months of January (Ianuarius) and February (Februarius) to the original 10 months. This increased the year’s length to 354 or 355 days.
Despite their efforts, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if he or she was some distance from the city. For these reasons, the last years of the pre-Julian calendar were later known as “years of confusion”.
The Julian calendar. The Gregorian calendar. And the colossal confusion called “Easter.”
Julius Caesar (yes, he of the Ides of March) introduced the Julian calendar in 46 BCE, and it took effect in 45 BCE, shortly after Rome conquered Egypt. With the addition of January and February, some of the months’ names no longer “agreed” with their position in the calendar (September-December). In 44 BCE, the month Quintilis was renamed July in honor of Julius Caesar and in 8 BCE, Sextilis was renamed August in honor of Augustus (the other Caesar).
The Julian calendar proved rather hardy and served humankind in good stead until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the Gregorian calendar, because naming a calendar after oneself is irresistible, if not grandiose. Today, the Gregorian calendar is the most widely used civil calendar throughout the world.
Why did all of this happen? Blame it on Easter. Wait. That’s not entirely fair. It’s better to blame it on the pope, who wanted to bring the date for celebrating Easter closer to the time of year in which it was celebrated by the early Church. Because Easter was tied to the spring equinox, the steady drift in its date by the year being slightly too long drove the poor pontiff to distraction. With no treatment available for obsessive-compulsive disorder, he did the next best thing. He changed the calendar.
The (formerly) blissful equinox.
There’s always been quite the brouhaha over the relationship between the equinox and Easter, and it will be easier to understand the conundrum if you think of the equinox as a thing with feelings. Imagine, if you will, the equinox, before humankind existed. Close your eyes. Can you see it? Right over there, smiling in its ignorance, living in peace, perhaps even unaware of its own existence, but in a state of bliss nonetheless.
So, there’s the blissful equinox, just minding its own business when humans appear on the map. These people make up stories about Easter. Eager to harness something—anything—people tie Easter to the spring equinox. This seemingly harmless—and certainly thoughtless—act has far-reaching consequences. No longer does the equinox exist unfettered, and it is not amused.
Yet even this did not satisfy humankind. Over time, the date kept “drifting,” so the Roman Catholic Church promulgated a fateful rule—the full moon preceding Easter would not precede the equinox. Ever. Thanks to this rule, the equinox now remains fixed at March 21 for computational purposes, and the earliest date for Easter is fixed at March 22.
To further compensate for the drift, the Gregorian calendar also removed 10 days. If you lived back in 1582, you went to bed one night and woke up 10 days later. There is much more to all of this, but alas, space in this context—according to my editor—is finite. Go here to learn more.
As expected, the equinox resented—heck, still does—being stuck in place, forever. But the equinox was not the only thing to suffer—people suffered, too. We’re talking about 10 perfectly good days—poof!—just gone.
Things still aren’t perfect.
So, here we are, in the year 2016, accustomed to a 365-day year and a leap year of 366 days. We have scheduled the leap year day, February 29, to occur every four years to help synchronize the calendar year with the solar year (the length of time it takes the earth to complete its orbit about the sun), which is about 365¼ days. It sounds so cold and calculated because it is.
The length of the solar year is slightly less than 365¼ days—by about 11 minutes—and this cannot go unpunished, so we “compensate” for this discrepancy. Until the advent of the next calendar—whenever that may be—the leap year is omitted three times every four hundred years. What this means is that a century year cannot be a leap year unless it is divisible by 400. Thus 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, but 1600 and 2000 were—and 2400 will be—leap years.
Ha! Surely you see the quandary. The universe will not be outfoxed.
*Where does nesting material go to live when Easter is all said and done?