History of Calendars

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<< Time and Calendars, general Historical Notes (below) Almanac 1835

Some Historical Notes about Calendars
A short overview of Calendars and the Definition of the NEW YEAR

Findings of bones with carvings, dated to the time of colonization after the ice ages, have been interpreted as recordings of a kind of lunar calendar. The need for a calendar may have been connected to hunting which of course at that time was vital to survival.

With the advent of agricultural ages the calendar was gradually reoriented towards the cycles of the sun, probably because the sun is critical to farming. The relation to lunar phases remained in many calendars for very long and is still used in some cultures today.

The landmarks of a solar year are (Swedish term in parentheses):
Winter solstice (Vintersolstånd), Vernal equinox (Vårdagjämning),
Summer solstice (Sommarsolstånd) and Autumn equinox (Höstdagjämning).
These points in the year were identified very early.
Although these points are generally important to farming the start of the new year was selected differently in different regions. The Nordic countries selected the time close to the winter solstice.
In Rome (controlling southern Europe and periodically other areas around the Mediterranean Sea) the spring was selected as the start of the new year. This was connected to the election of "consuls" (the rulers in Rome) taking place in early spring and so the month of "Martii" (March, the month of the God of wars, Mars) was named the first month of the year. That is the origin of the name "December" which is "the tenth month" in Latin. Most of the other names of months also come from the Roman calendars.
After the election of consuls the preparations for the coming war campaigns started (wars were rarely fought in the winter because of the adverse weather conditions). Eventually the warlords were unhappy with the short time available for training the soldiers so the start of the new year was moved to Jan 1st in the year 153 B.C.
The Roman calendar before the emperor Julius Caesar was a mix of an old lunar and the newer solar calendar. It became increasingly difficult to calculate the extra month that was put in at intervals to accommodate to the lunar phases. So Julius Caesar implemented a new calendar, called the Julian Calendar, in the year 46 B.C. The scientific basis was created by the astronomer Sosigenes from Alexandria. This calendar completely abandoned the connection to the lunar phases and had 365 1/4 days in a year and, since you cannot have a 1/4 day, put the extra full day in every 4th year - the "leap day"
In December the Romans celebrated the "Saturnarii" (related to the planet Saturn) with huge parties and also giving of gifts. The latter may be a predecessor of our Christmas presents although many other origins are possible (e.g. the gifts from the "Three Wise Men"). These celebrations became connected to the New Year after that was moved to Jan 1st.
The Julian calendar was also changed to accommodate 12 months and the names used today all originate from this calendar.

The catholic church was not happy with these pagan festivities and so the Church assembly at Tours, France in the year 567 proclaimed the day of the circumcision of Jesus Christ, on the 8th day after his birth on the 25th of Dec, as the start of the New Year. This may have been intended to knock out the "Saturnarii" and a few other pagan festivities at this time of the year.

In Sweden the king Gustaf Vasa (16th century) proclaims Jan 1st as the start of the New Year.

The length of the year (365,25 days) of the Julian calendar does not perfectly match the "tropical year" (the "real" astronomic year). The difference is one day in 128 years. In 1582 an improved calendar, the "Gregorian calendar", is proclaimed by the pope Gregorius the 13th. In that one the error is one day in about 1500 years. This calendar was adopted in 1582 by the catholic world but by the Lutheran countries at very different times, e.g. N Germany, Denmark and Norway in 1700, England 1753, Japan 1873, China 1912, Russia 1918 and Greece in 1923. Sweden adopted this new calendar in 1752.

Celebration of the "exact" turn of the year requires a national common time. This was proclaimed in Sweden in 1878 because the railway time tables required a uniform time. So the celebration of New Year's as we know it is only about 100 years old. The fireworks were added in the last 50 years despite the fact that fireworks had been manufactured for several hundred years (thousands in China ?).

How does this influence your genealogy research ?

1 All dates before 1752 use the Julian calendar so when calculating the length of a time period that starts before and ends in or after that year you must include the calendar change-over, i.e. deduct the days lost in the change

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Last updated by F Hae 2005-05-04 11:05 © Fredrik Haeffner, 2004-5