Walsh’s Wonderings — Calendar Confusion

Robert F. Walsh

I’m embarrassed to admit how often I have to think about whether a month has 30 or 31 days. It wasn’t until my freshman accounting class that my professor finally revealed the secret. After a quick look of contempt when someone fumbled this question, he pointed to his closed fist. He informed us that each knuckle represented a month with 31 days, and each depression in between represented a month with 30. February, like our embarrassment, was never addressed.

How could it have taken so long for someone to show me this simple strategy? I can only assume I was in the bathroom when they taught it in third grade.

Alas, it wouldn’t be my only confusion regarding the calendar. How can something upon which our entire perception of time depends appear to be so random? For instance, why do February and August get to follow their own rules? Why does an extra day pop up every four years out of nowhere, yet April 15 appears every year? Why does my mom insist on buying me calendars for Christmas even though I haven’t used one since the late ’90s?

It turns out the calendar we know came about as a compromise. Initially, months were mostly 29 days long with an average length of 29.5 days (the time taken by the Moon to orbit the Earth). However, this resulted in a year only 354 days long, while the orbital period of the Earth is actually 365.2422 days. This put the calendar out of sync with seasons, so initially a decision was made to correct this by adding a 13th month. This threw things even further out of whack until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BCE by ordering the year to be 365 days in length and 12 months long. To account for the extra 0.2422 days, every fourth year was made a leap year.

This made February forever a wild card. Even worse, those with birthdays on Feb. 29 were forever robbed of birthday parties and a free Grand Slam at Denny’s.

However, this new calendar year was still slightly different than a true year, and by 1582 the error had grown to 10 full days. To fix this, they simply deleted the extra days entirely: they day after Oct. 4, 1582, was Oct. 15, 1582. To make it even more confusing, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that century years not divisible by 400 would never be leap years. Now that the year accurately followed the seasons, it no longer followed the phases of the moon. This became known as the Gregorian Calendar.

The first six months were named after gods and the last six formed from their Latin chronological number until the emperors realized they could squeeze themselves into history for all time. July is named for Julius Caesar, and August was named after his grand-nephew, Caesar Augustus. That gravy train ended with them, however, as successive emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Domitian and Commodus tried and failed to rename September after themselves.

As for Mom, I haven’t figured out why she still buys me calendars. I just re-gift them to save time.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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