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It’s just a question of time

September 2011 

It’s just a question of timeSeptember already and we know that soon the days will begin to draw in, the weather will cool off and the idea of a barbecue in the garden will have to be put on hold for many months.

The concept of months gives our year shape. If the year wasn’t divided up into months, the idea of when we might be able to get that barbecue out again would become very hazy indeed – just a long time in the future.

Dividing time into small periods we can relate to is such an obvious and simple idea that it can be hard to appreciate the thought and effort that has gone into it all to ensure the modern year is neatly divided into comprehensible departments.

The idea of the year, and organising life with the natural cycles of the earth, was considered by early man who noticed the different cycles of the moon and the sun. But they soon came up against the major problem that natural cycles in the earth’s rhythm do not divide evenly. Months measured by a new moon don’t add up to an exact solar year.

Various ideas were tried. The Chinese for instance tried a combination of month lengths, alternating between 29 and 30 days, and then had a special reschedule every so often by adding leap months to get the whole thing back into synch.

The ancient Egyptians are credited with being among the first to work on a calendar of 12 months. However, they made each month 30 days long, nice and concise but then of course at the end of the year things started to go wrong. If they had kept on, they would have found summer months would have edged into winter. So they added a few extra days at the end of every year to get things back to normal.

The early Romans tried to synchronize the months on the timing of the first crescent moon and made various complicated attempts to realign monthly lunar cycles with the annual solar calendar.

Julius Caesar was one of many leaders frustrated by the problem of time (well, it must have been annoying for him to tell his legions, see you in London in three months time, and then find they were working on a different time scale!), and he asked a renowned astronomer of the day, Sosigenes of Alexandria in Egypt, to work on a better calendar.

Finally, through a combination of Sosigenes’ effort together with the work of other scientists and astronomers, the idea of a leap year was finalised, adding an extra day to a year every four years to get into exact synch with the movement of the sun and moon. This was before electronic calculators and was really a remarkable achievement considering the complexities of the natural cycles. The year is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds long; and the time between full moons is 29.53 days. No wonder it was such a hard task to come up with a time pattern that would work year in year out.

Interestingly the first day of each month was called kalendae, or calends, when debts were due to be paid. Books to track these payments were called calendarium, or account books, and it is from this that we get the word calendar.

January was not always the first month of the year. For a while, the Romans began their year in March and ended in February and it was not until 1582, when Pope Gregory adjusted the calendar, that western countries began to celebrate the start of a new year on January 1st. This new system became known as the Gregorian calendar but was not immediately accepted everywhere and in England and its American colonies, people continued to celebrate New Year on the date of the spring equinox in March. We finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752.

Some of the names of the months are interesting. September, October, November and December are fairly mundane, being derived from simple Latin numbering (Septem, Latin for seven; octo, Latin for eight etc). While we think of them as the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth month, the original names heralded from the older calendar starting in March.

Other names are also quite simple, May was named after Maia, an earth goddess of growing plants, appropriate for this springtime month; June was named after Juno, the queen of gods and patroness of marriage and weddings – summertime weddings were clearly popular in Roman days as well as now.

However, some of the names are more complex. April is said to have got its name from the Latin word for second (second month) but many claim is comes from the word aperire, a Latin word meaning to open because it represents the opening of buds and flowers in spring. There is also thought that the month was named after the goddess Aphrodite.

February is said to be named after an old festival of Februa held in the same month. March is said to be so named because the Romans insisted that all wars cease during the time of celebration between the old and new years. March was the first month of thenew incoming year and so it is believed the month was named after Mars, the Roman god of war.

It all brings home the amount of history, work and effort that has gone into dividing the natural cycles of the earth into a regular pattern that we can all understand and work with. It hasn’t simplified everything of course, some festivals such as Easter that are dependent on natural movements of the sun or moon, change all the time. But at least for most of us, we know that 7am is generally in the morning and that in January the weather can be somewhat chilly, so we definitely owe some thanks to all the people who worked so hard to try and bring some sense into the question of time.


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