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Calendrical Trivia

Oh, the joys of winter, especially if the lake freezes. In the 1820s, Jane Austin’s contemporaries frolicked in snow and ice. Clearly these young men are showing off, while the boys in the background focus on their own games.

January is the month of Janus, the Roman god who looks both forward and back, supervising new beginnings. Hence, we who keep time contained on precise lines, call the first month of the year, January.

Bust of Janus. Vatican Museum. US Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

We contain time within calendars. Calendars tell us how many days must pass before a particular event takes place, or, conversely, how many days have passed. People have kept track of time since earliest recorded history, and probably longer. Ancient Sumerians organized both a lunar year of 354 days and a solar year of 365.25 days. To keep things tidy, they added an extra month every six years.

Julius Caesar by Amadscientist. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

When Julius Caesar gained control of Rome, he inherited a calendar featuring 304 days over ten months. He found this inefficient. Besides, what could be more indicative of power than being able to control time itself? The Julian Calendar stood largely unchanged until 1582. Caesar began the year on January 1 and ended it on December 31.

Gregory XIII. Portrait by Lavinia Fontana. US Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The Church continued to used the Julian Calendar, but by the time Gregory XIII became pope, adjustments needed to be made to correct the length of the calendar year by 0.002% so that the Festival of Easter would occur at the correct time. Apparently the date had been drifting, because it was tied to the Spring Equinox. [Sidebar: The date for Easter still drifts, but that’s a story for another time.]

With this adjustment the length of the official year changed from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days, which actually reduces the year by ten minutes and forty-eight seconds per year. Even so, every four years an extra day occurs in February.

Copernican System. 1660. British Library. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Despite Gregory’s proclamation, the calendar still didn’t work properly, largly because in 1582 the earth was the center of the universe. Scientists and astronomers adjusted their computations until Copernicus made his breakthrough. Our universe actually revoves around the sun, reducing earth’s status to a mere planet. The Church ignored and then denied this discovery until 1757 when Pope Benedict XIV suspended the ban on heliocentric scholarship.

River – Porcupine Mountains MI, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Time and calendars have moved on. We can compute planetary motion with ever greater precision. We can balance our dates on paper and digital graphs called calendars. Yet as Marcus Aurelius pointed out in his often impassive way:

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream;

for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away,

and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”

Yet another reason to fully embrace and enjoy the current moment.

Featured Image: January Print, 1820s, US Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Information taken from Wikipedia.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


  1. Tempus Fugit –

    just wanted you to know someone is reading your blog! With the cold of winter finally turning up here on the right coast of the USA – time slows down and winter seems eternal. Fortunately the days will lengthen soon -and in “the fullness of time” winter will turn to spring. Sometimes I am tempted to just buy a plane ticket to Hilo and turn up on your doorstep – to enjoy warmer days and night during the winter.

  2. Wish I/we could save time in a bottle, like the song. I would save those precious moments spent with loved ones who have died, be it 2 & 4 legged, with & without fur or tail. Sometimes it’s only our memories that seem the dearest.

  3. Very entertaining! I have Greek Orthodox friends, so have been curious about the Julian vs. Gregorian calendars. Mahalo!


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