Counting the Days

Today I wanted to post an introduction to how the Bahá’í calendar, or the Badí’ calendar as it is more correctly called, fixes some problems with the most commonly used Gregorian calendar. To that end, this is mainly going to be about the Gregorian calendar.

For brevity, I am keeping this post limited to the sub-division of time down to a 24 hour period.

We all have calendars, we use them to plan and to understand things in context. In modern society they let us know whether it is a day on which we have to go to work, they help us to plan activities, they tell us how many years it is since our birth or our wedding, they tell us when we will get paid and when we have to make payments, and they help us to place limits on activities and assess how well we are progressing with them. These are a few of the main uses of a calendar.

Historically, ancient man was probably not so concerned about a lot of these things, but it would not have been long before certain important cycles of nature became apparent, most notably the seasons. There were hot periods and cold periods, good times to plant food and good times to pick the food, it was useful for humankind to know when these were. In some places there were other clues such as river levels which also changed with the seasons, in other places they worked out that the sun’s position in the sky could determine the seasons and they built structures such as Stonehenge to guide them.

A Nileometer, in Cairo, determined the time of year by the depth of Nile water flooding this chamber.

Humans wanted to be able to measure time in units shorter than seasons but longer than days. And the first method of measuring this was the waxing and waning of the moon. Every 29 or 30 days a new moon would appear, and part way through that cycle a full moon would appear.  Very ancient calendars would simply count the moons, but the system was not ideal for agriculture as the lunar cycles did not line up properly with the seasons.

The Gregorian calendar we have today is the final result of many attempts to make months, based on the length of moon cycles, align with seasons. Although its roots may be from significantly earlier, much of what the Gregorian calendar looks like began with the calendar proposed by the first King of the Romans, Romulus, in  about 753 BC. It was the earlier civilizations of the Sumerians and Babylonians who had a love for the number 60, which filtered down into our timekeeping and navigational systems of today, but the Romans were more affectionate for the number 10 (or X in Roman numerals).  They introduced a calendar with 10 months,  the first four (Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius) were named after Roman Gods, the rest (Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December) were named after their numerical position on the calendar.  The months were each alotted either 30 or 31 days, and there was a period of 61 days after December which were considered unlucky days and did not get names. At this time there were 8 days of the week on the calendar, labelled A to H, with one of them being designated a market day in each town. This system lasted about 40 years until the second Roman King, Numa, added two more months, Januarius and Februarius after December, changed all the 30 day months to be 29 days, so the months were either 31 days or 29 days long, and introduced a new intercalary month called Mercedonious to be added when required. The Romans didn’t count their days from the start of the month, the first day of the month was called the Kalends of the month, which means the day of the new moon,  and is where we get our word Calendar from. Near the middle of the month was a day called Ides and the 9th day before Ides was called Nones. Days were counted backwards from the next Kalends, Ides or Nones, whichever was soonest. The 13th of November would have been the Ides of November on the Roman calendar, in a 30 day November, 25th November would have been the 7th (VII) day before the Kalends of December (the day of the Kalends itself being included).

This is how the calendar remained for more than 6 centuries, and although it had been designed with the “as required” month of Mercedonious to compensate for the difference between the duration of the 12 months (365 days) and the solar year, the implementation of this month was left in the hands of those in power, and the system was abused to prolong or shorten years for political purposes.

A Statue of Julius Caesar in Italy.

By 46 BC, the month of Martius, which was supposed to start the year at spring, was in winter.  Julius Caeser fixed the alignment by making that year 445 days long, he modified the lengths of the months to what we know them as today, including a new leap-year system (30 days had September, Aprilis, Junious and November, all the rest had 31 except for Februarius alone which had 28 except for every 4 years when it had 29). Julius Caeser also changed the ‘first’  month to Januarius instead of Martius, and the name of Quintilis was changed to Julius in his honour.  This calendar was called the Julian calendar.  Julius Caeser was murdered in  Martius 44 BC, and people soon forgot exactly how his new leap system was supposed to work. Even if it had been implemented as designed the years would have fallen out of sync again, but the leap years were implemented every 3 years. It was nearly 40 years later that Augustus corrected the leap year system to be once every four years and introduced extra days to correct the alignment of the year with the sun (added over the course of 16 years). Sextilis was renamed Augustus in his honour.

So, in about 8 BCE, we had a calendar that, albeit with old versions of the names, had the names and various lengths that we use today. Our month names are a mix of Roman Gods and beliefs and positional numbers, though those numbers were now two months ahead of where they fell in the calendar (eg September, October, November and December are the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months in name, but had become the 9th , 10th, 11th and 12th months of the year).

Even with all of these modifications, the year still didn’t align properly with the seasons, but we will come back to that shortly.

Fast forwarding a few centuries, Christianity has taken hold in Europe and in 321 AD the Emporer Constantine adopted a 7 day week based on Babylonian and Greek systems. The day had been divided into 24 hours and the Greeks named each hour of the day after an object in our solar system: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury and Moon,  the pattern repeated after 7 days, with the solar body after which the first hour of each day was named being considered the dominant planet of that day, the order of those dominant planets was Saturn, Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus. The Britons later renamed some of these days after Anglo-Saxon Gods, Tiw, Woden, Thor and Frig, but in French the connection to the planets can still be seen on those days (Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi, Vendredi).  Seven was considered the right number of days for a Christian week, based on the 7 days of creation, and Sunday was made a holy day of rest. In French, Italian and Spanish, Sunday was renamed to reflect that it was the day of the Lord.

In 325 AD, Emporer Constantine called the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, in ancient Nicaea (in modern Turkey) and they decided how to fix the date of Easter, setting it on the first Sunday after the first full moon counting from the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere (the moment that the sun crosses the equator from south to north) . However,  the Spring equinox was not easy to calculate at the time and the first full moon observed after the Spring equinox could potentially depend upon where you are observing from, so the Council of Nicea fixed the date of the Spring equinox as March 21st for the purposes of calculating the date of Easter. This decision was later to have an important bearing on the development of the calendar.

A representation of the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

I have been referring to years using BC and AD, but using the calculated year of Jesus’ birth was a notion first thought of in the 6th century AD, and it took a few centuries for it to start catching on. Before this, years were most commonly referred to by those who were in power during them, for example: “In the __th year of Emporer ________”, or counting from the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Over time, and especially with the advent of printing which meant that more people were aware of the date, it became noticeable that the months were yet again out of alignment with the seasons. The misalignment might not have mattered to most people, but as the Council of Nicea had determined the time of Easter – and by association, the time of Lent – to be based on the Spring equinox, Christians started to become ridiculed for fasting and celebrating at the wrong times of the year, for people could tell that March 21st no longer aligned to that equinox.

Pope Gregory XIII

In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII proposed removing 10 days from the year and modifying the leap-year system so that if the year was divisible by 100, but not by 400, then it would not be a leap-year. This new calendar was called the Gregorian calendar, but there was a lot of resistance to its implementation. Workers feared they would be robbed of pay and tenants feared they would be charged rent for days that didn’t exist. By the time many countries finally adopted it, such as the UK in 1752, 11 days needed removing instead of 10.

And so we ended up with the calendar we use today. 12 months of varying lengths adapted from moon cycles, named after Roman Gods and numbers that are in the wrong place, with days of the week named after planets (themselves named after Greek Gods)  and, in English, Anglo-Saxon Gods, and with a leap-year system that, after 2,000 years of modifications, very nearly aligns Martius, or March, or March 21st, to the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.

My “brief” introduction to how we got our current Gregorian calendar (and when compared to 2000 years it is brief) leaves little room to introduce all the detail of the Badí’ calendar here, that will be in another post, but it is a good introduction to some of the features of the calendar.

Firstly, the Badí’ calendar is aligned to the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. This alignment is not through some elaborate mathematical equations, it is simply how the start of the year is defined. Where the Council of Nicea shied away from choosing an official observation point from which to declare the moment of the equinox for their calculation of Easter, the Badí’ calendar uses the moment of the equinox above the city of Tehran, in Iran, the birthplace of Bahá’u’lláh, to determine the first day of the year. On whichever day (sunset to sunset) the equinox occurs above that city, that same day is the first day of the year, the world over, whether the equinox falls on that day for people in other locations or not. Therefore, unlike even our most recent Gregorian calendar, the Badí’ calendar will never fall out of alignment with the sun and the seasons.

Secondly, the Badí’ calendar has done away with random month lengths. Months are supposed to be a measurement of time, yet on the Gregorian calendar they vary in length by up to 3 days.  Where the Romans liked the number ten, two of the numbers that Bahá’ís like are 19 and 5, and the Badí’ calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days with an added intercalary festival of approximately 5 days, depending on the timing of the previous and following vernal equinox. The days between the months, which were once a long period of unlucky days, are now a short period of joyful days. The only better fits to the solar year with a fixed number of days to the month would have been 14 months of 26 days or 13 months of 28 days, but they would leave a solitary one or two intercalary days.

Next, the names of the months and days have been changed to attributes and qualities of God. This change is arguably an update to the system already in use as more than half of our months and days are named after Greek, Roman or Anglo-Saxon Gods,  and would have reminded people of the powers associated with those Gods. As qualities of God, the names would also be meaningful to those who do not recognise Bahá’u’lláh as God’s Messenger for this day, indeed the names of the months appear in an Islamic fasting prayer.

Next week I hope to post a bit more detail about the calendar itself and its implementation. At the moment Bahá’ís only use this calendar as a religious calendar, determining the correct dates for observing feasts and holy days, alongside the Gregorian calendar which we still use for day-to-day planning.

2 thoughts on “Counting the Days”

  1. Thanks for your reasoned argument, setting out the origins of our current system against the rationalized Badí Calendar.

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