A brief history of how humans have tracked time
What if I told you that I have plans to celebrate the New Year in February?
Depending on where you’re from, that last sentence may be confusing. Or you may conclude that what I really meant to write was January. In reality, I was talking about the Lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year.
When you’re around those who celebrate this day, you wouldn’t say “Happy Lunar New Year!” or “Happy Chinese New Year!” You’d simply say “新年快乐!” (xīn nián kuài lè), which translates to “Happy New Year!”
In other parts of the world, when the calendar switches to the 1st day of January, people won’t say “Happy Gregorian New Year!” or “Happy Western New Year!” One simply says “Happy New Year!”
As we get closer to 2021, some people feel optimistic about the world taking another step closer to normalcy. But is time really as simple as it seems? If someone were to ask you “What is today’s date?” or “When is New Years’ Day?” most would assume they were elementary questions.
But are they?
The year is 622 CE. Muhammad leads a mass of his followers from Mecca to Medina, in an event we call the Hijra. It was a rebirth for the Muslim religion, but also for the Muslim calendar.
The Islamic Calendar, also known as the Hijiri Calendar, is based on the moon. The new year typically begins in July or August, and in 2021, the Islamic New Year will begin on the evening of August 9th, when the sun sets. Ramadan always falls on the 9th month on the lunar calendar, but since that doesn’t always synchronize with the Gregorian system, it can seem like the dates are moving backward.
Since the moon completes all of its phases in approximately 29.5 days, under a lunar system one year is approximately 354 days — as opposed to the 365-day solar calendar system.
Over time, followers of the lunar calendar added in the sun’s positions to keep track of when the four major seasons would begin, and leap months were added to align the two cycles. Thus, the lunisolar calendar system was born.
The Lunar New Year follows this system, and always falls on a different day: it’s the day after the second (or third) new moon, after the Winster Solstice. In 2021, this holiday will be celebrated in mid-February.
The Lunar New Year, commonly known as Chinese New Year, isn’t only celebrated by the Chinese, Taiwanese, and the diaspora in other nations. The Vietnamese celebrate Tet, while Koreans call it Seollal, and Mongolians gather for Tsagaan Sar, all of which fall on the same day. It is often a multiday celebration that consists of family feasts, gift-giving, wearing the color red (a lucky color), praying at temples, and setting off firecrackers to chase the evil spirits away.
At the end of the rainy season, Eritrean farmers see not only the harvest coming, but also the New Year. The 11th of September (or the 12th if it’s a Leap Year) is associated with the Queen of Sheba’s return to Ethiopia after visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem in 980 BCE.
Enkutatash is the the Amharic word for “New Year”, on the Ethiopian calendar system — which is 13 months long, and fixed to the Julian Calendar, the earlier version of the Gregorian calendar. The first 12 months are as we know them, while the 13th month has 5 or 6 days. Because of the extra month, the Ethiopian year is currently 2013.
Nowruz, also known as the Persian New Year begins on the March Equinox. Most people think of Nowruz as Iranian, but it’s also celebrated by Afghans, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Kazakhs, and many many more.
Further down the calendar, Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, begins in September or October (depending on the moon and when Passover was observed). Like the Islamic calendar, one day is from sunset to sunset is one day as opposed to the new day beginning at midnight. The current Jewish year is 5781.
On the lunisolar Hindu calendar, the beginning of the year starts in the spring, usually in April. Those who use this calendar system are normally believers of the Hindu faith on the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia.
Due to the diverse subcultures of the Hindu community, there are various types of celebrations for the Hindu New Year, including the Assamese New Year, Puthandu or Tamil New Year, and Ugadi. Common celebratory traditions in all three subcultures include eating local cuisines as a family, the giving of offerings and/or donations, ritual practices to start the new year on a high note.
Like the Hindu calendar, the beginning lunisolar year on the Buddhist calendar starts in the month of April. This calendar system is primarily recognised in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and by the Buddhist populations in Malaysia and Singapore. For avid travellers, they may have experienced the famous Songkran Festival in Thailand, a nationwide water fight that lasts for three days. Those who participated in the festival experienced a common water purification ritual. Traditionally these were done in the form of pouring water on Buddha images, monks, or the elders as well and cleansing their homes for peace and blessings
With all of these suns and moon-based, one may wonder how the Gregorian system came to be and why it’s been adopted nearly everywhere in the world.
The Gregorian system was created in 1582 by Pope Gregory XII of Italy, as an updated version of the calendar systems that were used in the days of the Roman Empire.
If you’ve ever wondered why September, October, November and December sound familiar, its because their prefixes mean seven, eight, nine, and ten. They’re a leftover from the original Roman Calendar, which had only 10 months, from March to December, each with 30 or 31 days.
It was reformed by adding Ianuarius, or January , and Februarius, or February. Funnily, the word January comes from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, endings, and transitions. His image has two faces, looking in opposite directions — just as we do at the start and end of each year. There was also Mercedonius, a leap month which occurred every few years. This was later taken away, and Februrary’s leap day was added in.
In the 17th Century, other countries began to adopt it, calculating how it fit in with their own individual systems. The other Catholic majority nations in Europe and their colonies in the Americas were the first, while others were slower due to skepticism or lack of interest.
Calendars have existed for thousands of years, and throughout that time, humans have made variations based on the sun, moon, and their religious beliefs.
Different cultures may view their respective New Year’s Day as the official start of the new year, but how does that work? There can only be one new year, can’t there?
The concept of time is a human construct, based on human calculations of the sun and moon’s positions, and significant times in a culture’s religious history. This means that time is measured and celebrated differently across the world.
In the end, it’s all relative.
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