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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.


October is one of the few months when I wish I were Up North. I loved the patchwork of colored trees against my Ozark Mountains, as well as the hayrides and wiener roasts of teenage years. Graduate years in Massachusetts didn’t feature spectacular mountains, but people there enthusiastically decorated their lawns. Hubby and I had bought a house by then, just a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, and our drives to school took us past piles of orange pumpkins and rows of bright yellow chrysanthemums, as well as the occasional white ghost hanging from a fiery-leafed tree.

Last night at Walmart I saw a big bin of plastic pumpkins for treat collecting – and not one of them was orange. Pink and purple and blue, none looked anything like natural. They were a bargain at a dollar, but seemed to have few takers, and I trust that whoever made that avant-garde purchasing decision is looking for a new job. Maybe here in Florida, where summer never ends and pumpkins never grow, alternative colors might be acceptable, but let’s not encourage such blasphemy.

So I got to thinking about October and why it is named that. “Oct,” of course, is “eight” in Latin – as in an octagonal or eight-sided building or octet, a musical group of eight. One would think October would be the eighth month, but instead it’s the tenth. August is the eighth, and it is named for Caesar Augustus – yes, the same Caesar Augustus whose name you hear every Christmas. It was because of his dicta that “all the world should be taxed” that Mary and Joseph were on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They were going to be registered in the first census, which required the journey to Joseph’s family’s hometown.

As I said in a Christmas column a couple of years ago, where were Joseph’s cousins? The young couple probably ended up in a stable because respectable family members didn’t want to take in his pregnant girlfriend. And by the way, the manger that was a crib for the newborn? That’s from the French word, manger, which is pronounced mon-jay and means to eat. Cows and sheep ate the hay in a manger. Now I’m wondering about the etymology of “mange,” the disgusting dog skin condition. But I need to get back to the point.

About Time

The birth of that homeless baby is how we number our years now, but people on all parts of the globe had methods of measuring time long before that. The Jewish calendar is the oldest, and like other ancient methodology, was based more on the moon than the sun. It has months of 29 and 30 days alternately, with an extra month every third year. That intercalation is necessary so that the first month of the year, Nisan, coincides with the vernal equinox. And in case you slept through geography classes, the vernal equinox is the day in March (between the 20th and 22nd) when days and nights are equal, before days become longer in summer. The reverse happens in September with the autumnal equinox.

Egyptians had a lunar calendar similar to the one used by the Israelites, but it also took into account the annual flooding of the Nile River. Some scholars say that calendar was created in 4236 BC and this is the earliest known date. Jews would dispute that, having recently celebrated their New Year (loosely related to the autumnal equinox) of 5777. Both, obviously, were thousands of years ahead of the modern Christian calendar. (And yes, BC does stand for “Before Christ.” More re that later.)

Thousands of miles away in China, perhaps 2357 BC, Emperor Yao ordered a calendar reform that attempted to meld the disparate movements of the moon and the sun. His astronomers came up with a calendar of 24 half-months and cycles of 60 years. Without trying to understand the complexities, this accounts for the Chinese tradition of naming years for animals. This year, 2017, is The Year of the Rooster, and the Chinese New Year holidays lasted from January 28 to February 15.

Although Mexico still isn’t considered a leader in learning, the Mayans figured out how to accurately count time well before Europeans did -- but when Hernando Cortez arrived there in 1519, he ordered his soldiers to bury the most sophisticated Mayan calendar. Made of basaltic, it was twelve feet in diameter and featured intricate measurements. When it was uncovered in 1790, the rock revealed that Mayans understood astronomy well enough to create a year of 364 days, just one day off from our modern calendar. It truly was a marvel, and so of course the alien warriors wiped out the resident scientists.

The Answer to October, and More

Ancient Greece had a year of 354 days, while ancient Rome (about the eighth century BC), counted just 304 days, which were divided into ten months. That explains “October,” as it was the eighth month of this short year. As it became obvious that seasonal reality wasn’t matching the calendar, King Numa Pompilius added two months, Januarius and Februarius, in the early 700s BC. Yet by the time that Julius Caesar took power in 46 BC, seasons were out of step again. He abandoned the use of lunar measurement, went solely with the sun, and added a leap year every four years. Julius Caesar named the month of July for himself, and Augustus did the same with August in 8 AD.

Of course the people living in 8 AD, when Jesus presumably was eight years old, didn’t use either that or BC: Everything enumerated with those terms is retroactive. That may change, too, as my trendier copyeditors are touting a change from AD to CE, which stands for – take your choice -- “Current Era” or “Common Era.” They would turn BC into BCE, meaning “Before Current//Common Era,” instead of “Before Christ.” I understand their objection to identifying time with a particular religious deity, but I wonder about their assumption that “current” always will be current and to whom “common” is common.

This probably is a good place to remind you that AD is not “After [Christ’s] Death,” as many people believe. Instead, it is “Anno Domini,” or the “Year of Our Lord.” This system, our fundamental world chronology these days, originated in the early 500s, but was not widely used until the 800s. Again, the bright idea arose in a place not seen as enlightened today – the Danube River delta of modern Romania and Bulgaria.

So, accepting the usage of AD that is implied from here on, the next major calendar adjustment was at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicaea – and the Nicaean Creed that arose there -- is in modern Turkey, another place we don’t associate with innovation. The council’s aim was to ensure that all Christians celebrated Easter at the same time, and the date was set for the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Back to the moon, again. And yes, there is a connection between “moon” and “month.” And there certainly is a strong connection between religious and civil authorities. Indeed, they were inseparable in most cultures, with divinity claimed by royals from ancient Egypt to twentieth-century Japan.

Muhammed never claimed divinity, but the Arabs who adopted his beliefs begin the first year of their calendar with 622 AD, when he fled from Medina to Mecca to escape persecution. The Muslim system is lunar, which means that significant holy days change over time. Ramadan, for example, can occur in every month of the year. For observant Muslims who do not eat or drink during daylight hours, this is important. If you live in Minnesota, with short winter days and long summer days, it can mean the difference between fasting a mere six hours on December days or three times that in June.

Modern Times

The link between religion and calendars that is most meaningful to us today was in 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed the Gregorian calendar. It is named for Gregory, of course, although the ideas behind this update of the Julian calendar largely were produced by an astronomer from Naples (Italy) and a Jesuit priest from Bavaria (Germany). This calendar, sometimes called “New Style,” soon was adopted in France and other Catholic nations. Great Britain, however, waited most of two centuries, adopting it in 1752.

English people had been living in America since 1607, and that’s why we have conflicting dates for such things as George Washington’s birthday, as he was born twenty years prior to the Mother Country’s acceptance of the new calendar. Historians mostly have chosen to ignore these technicalities, as an exact chronology too often gets in the way of the main point. And the main point here is that things evolve and change, and that maxim needs to be accepted as a life principle and expectation.

It seems likely to me that no one except autocratic semi-divine rulers could have introduced these reforms, which were based on objective observation, not on myths and legends. If given a voice, far too many people of earlier times would have rejected science and resisted any change to something as seemingly timeless as time. Indeed, new calendars were greeted with riots in some parts of Europe during the 1600s and 1700s. Democratic ideas were beginning to arise with Protestantism, and protesting peasants accused authorities of shortening their lives. Confused by change, they did what conservatives do and attacked intellectuals.

Some intellectuals continue to promote more efficient calendars. My favorites were proposed by two Americans decades ago. New Yorker Elisabeth Achelis established the World Calendar Association in 1930 to promote her version, which would make days and dates of the month the same. Willard Edwards, who was Hawaii’s delegate to Congress prior to statehood in 1959, introduced a similar perpetual calendar. It has three quarters with four months in each -- and a long holiday at New Year’s. I could go for that.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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