(Not) reforming the calendar

A few weeks ago I was pottering in a local secondhand book shop and stumbled on Time Counts: The Story of the Calendar published in 1954 and written by British journalist Harold Watkins.   There was quite a bit of interesting history in the book –  including around the belated British adoption of the Gregorian calendar – but the main purpose of the book was to champion the then-rising cause of calendar reform.   The foreword was by Lord Merthyr, chairman of the British section of something called the World Calendar Association.

I’d never even known there was such a movement, which wasn’t just a marginal group of nutters and obsessives.   Their cause had been taken up by the League of Nations in the inter-war period, and at the United Nations in the late 1940s and early 1950s.    Numerous governments weighed in, mostly either supporting or somewhat indifferent to, the cause of calendar reform (in New Zealand’s case, the Labour government of the late 1940s had declared in favour).   At the time The Story of the Calender was published, it seemed as if there was a real prospect of reform.  But it didn’t happen.

It is hard to get inside the thinking of serious people who championed reform in a cause which has since died away almost completely.  Granting that the Gregorian calendar is an approximation (think leap years, and the adjustments at ends of centuries and of every four hundred years, and it is still an approximation) quite what was the practical concern?    What seemed to bother the advocates of reform was things like the irregular number of days in each quarter, the fact that any particular date falls on a different day of the week in successive years (you can’t immediately know that the 15th of July is, say, a Wednesday) and –  of course (and I’ll come back to this topic) – the moveable feast of Easter.  Oh, and you need a new calendar every year.

The first two of these simply don’t seem very burdensome at all.  But I guess that a key difference between now and 1954 is that we live in the age of ubiquitous computing power (smart phones in almost every pocket or hand-bag).  If, for some reason, I’m signing a contract maturing on 15 July 2099 –  and I wish to avoid weekends – it takes me perhaps five seconds to find that that will be a Wednesday.    If I’m analysing sales or production, seasonal adjustment procedures with trading day adjustments are relatively readily available, and so on.  And, on the other hand, there is something nice about not having one’s birthday celebration fall on, say, a Monday every year of one’s life.  And I rather like the fact that Christmas isn’t always on the same day of the week –  perhaps it is just what one is used to –  even if does mean that every year newspaper stories comparing retail volumes in the days leading up to Christmas are less valid than the publishers like to think because precise retail patterns depend to some extent on how close Christmas Day falls to the preceeding weekend.

Anyway, the reformers thought all these were significant issues worth addressing, and they managed to persuade a fair number of the governments of the world (from east and west, Christian origins and not) to go along.  There were, we are told, a bunch of different reform options, but support was greatest for the so-called World Calendar.    Here is a summary of what they were championing

The World Calendar is a 12-month, perennial calendar with equal quarters.

Each quarter begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday. The quarters are equal: each has exactly 91 days, 13 weeks or 3 months. The three months have 31, 30, 30 days respectively. Each quarter begins with the 31-day months of January, April, July, or October.

The World Calendar also has the following two additional days to maintain the same new year days as the Gregorian calendar.

Worldsday
The last day of the year following Saturday 30 December. This additional day is dated “W” and named Worldsday, a year-end world holiday. It is followed by Sunday, 1 January in the new year.
Leapyear Day
This day is similarly added at the end of the second quarter in leap years. It is also dated “W” and named Leapyear Day. It is followed by Sunday, 1 July within the same year.

The World Calendar treats Worldsday and Leapyear Day as a 24-hour waiting period before resuming the calendar again. These off-calendar days, also known as “intercalary days”, are not assigned weekday designations. They are intended to be treated as holidays.

And so each time 1 January would be a Sunday a few years hence, the reformers pursued their cause with renewed energy.    At the time this book was published, the next such occasion was 1 January 1956.  The transition to the new system would be most seamless if the world moved to the new system on a 1 January that was a Sunday.

It would be fascinating if someone were to write a proper scholarly history of this movement (I can’t find much when I looked), but it seems that all the enthusiasm finally came to naught because of religious objections –  religions, notably Christianity and Judaism – that worship on a seven day cycle.  Each regular week would still only have seven days, but around two additional days, weeks would have eight days.  Gathering to worship on the following (in the Christian case) day labelled “Sunday” would no longer be seven days since the last gathering (or the day of worship – and rest –  would drift off the official weekends).

I presume this was one of those issues on which zealots on both sides cared greatly, and few other people cared very much at all, which left the status quo in place by default.  The US Congress appears to have been responsible for the effective block on any action, when the US recommended in 1955 that the United Nations take the matter no further.   The Wikipedia entry on the World Calendar proposal records this statement from then-Congressman (later President) Gerald Ford.

“… I have received numerous letters in opposition to the proposed world calendar change. I am in complete agreement with the opinions expressed in these letters and I will oppose any calendar change. The Department of State advises me that the United Nations may set up a study group on calendar reform. Secretary John Foster Dulles and our representatives at the U. N. are not in favor of this action and the United States will officially oppose setting up this U.N. study group on calendar reform. I have also been informed that our State Department will hold to that position until there is Congressional authorization for the calendar study. From my observations it seems that Congress is in no mood to tamper with the calendar.”

And that, it seems, was pretty much that.  Apparently there is still a World Calendar Association, but it appears to be almost as unknown as its cause.

But what of the moveable feast of Easter (and associated days such as Ash Wednesday and Ascension, also public holidays in some countries)?   The Christian festival, and associated holidays, move around from year to year in a way that no ordinary person can really fathom, and we all simply have to look up the dates.  Some years Easter marks the end of the school term, others not.  Some years it falls in March and others in April and seasonal adjustment never quite captures all the effects.   And of course even with the wider Christian church (and Christian-shaped countries) there are competing dates for Easter –  the Orthodox churches mostly observe Easter next weekend.

Frankly, there probably is a case for a different model, at least if the (interested bits of the) world could snap their collective fingers and be with that model rather than the current one.  There would be some symbolic advantages for churches –  across the world celebrating Easter, the greatest festival of our faith, on the same day –  and some convenience for the rest of society, residually Christian or totally indifferent/opposed.

I had learned a few years ago that there was a strong movement back in the 1920s and 1930s to standardise the date of Easter.  But until I read Time Counts I was not aware that there is a law on the UK statute books, passed in 1928, to standardise the date of Easter Day to the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April (roughly the middle of the period in which Easter can now fall).  The law (a private member’s bill, following on from a League of Nations report) received the royal assent and sits on the books today (you can read it for yourself –  it is a very short law).  The change would have applied in the UK and its colonies and mandated territories, but not (of course –  but it is explicitly spelled out in a schedule to the Act) in the dominions (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, Ireland, South Africa) or in India or Southern Rhodesia.

The law sits on the statute books today but the (UK) date of Easter didn’t change, because the operative provision required another vote of Parliament, which never occurred.

This Act shall commence and come into operation on such date as may be fixed by Order of His extent. Majesty in Council, provided that, before any such Order in Council is made, a draft thereof shall be laid before both Houses of Parliament, and the Order shall not be made unless both Houses by resolution approve the draft either without modification or with modifications to which both Houses agree, but upon such approval being given the order may be made in the form in which it has been so approved : Provided further that, before making such draft order, regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body.

And that has never happened.  You can read more here about some of what happened (and didn’t) subsequently.  The short answer is that the Christian churches have never reached general agreement on change, and although they don’t have a legal veto, in practice successive British governments have taken the view that legal change can’t run ahead of the churches.  In practice, I guess the law is now really just an historical oddity – not unrelated to the fact that England has an established church.  The British government simply can’t, in practical terms, unilaterally change Easter.

If, in some sense, the (affected bits of the) world might be a little better off with standardisation, it isn’t easy to see a way forward that will actually result in change.  Apart from anything else, it is a coordination issue: change is only likely if all the (major) Christian traditions, and all or most of the countries where Easter-related public holidays are on the books agreed together to make the change.   And in highly-secularised societies such as our own, it is rather more likely that there would be support to scrap Easter public holidays altogether (perhaps replace them with a couple of other days scattered across the year) rather than to legislate new and permanent dates.  And institutional churches are hardly likely to favour change without the assurance that the public holidays would be shifted (even recognising places like the US where Good Friday isn’t a holiday at all).   And there would probably be vocal minorities –  including in the US (recall 1955)  – of Christians opposed to any change to Easter dates at all.  If we knew, with confidence, the exact date on which the crucifixion occurred, perhaps standardisation would be easier…..but we don’t.

(Of course, in a New Zealand context, we get the tiny minority of ACT supporters sometimes championing abolishing statutory holidays altogether, to be replaced with additional leave entitlements, but that is simply never going to happen –  and nor in my view should it (regardless of whether the existing holidays have Christian roots or not).)

And so I expect that even if I live to 100, we’ll still be operating on the Gregorian calendar, and for all its endearing oddity, Easter will still be a moveable feast.

 

 

11 thoughts on “(Not) reforming the calendar

  1. I have read that in the interwar period King Alexander of Yugoslavia asked the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church if the Orthodox Easter could be made to coincide with the Catholic one, so his Croatian and Serbian subjects could celebrate on the same day. This was said to be impossible without the agreement of other Orthodox churches.

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  2. It does seem silly that Easter should be based on the cycles of the moon!

    I had a school teacher who used to go on about a World calendar but his version had 13 months of 28 days each. That is nice and neat so you know that every date always falls on the same day of the week in every month! It just leaves one day left as World Day and an extra Leap Year Day nearly every 4 years.

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  3. The movable Easter does affect university teaching/calendars with respect to the scheduling of mid-semester break. The break always contains the Easter statutory holidays This year the semester consists of 7 weeks prior to mid-semester break, and 5 weeks after. Not so ideal, I’ve found in that if one has 4 internal assessments – 3 is a bit many to make due in the first 7 weeks, and 2 is a squeeze in second 5 weeks (particularly as students also need to prepare for final exams, if there is one). Of course, were I teach this particular course I’m doing this semester again next year – I have changed the prescription to only three internal assessments. That process takes a calendar year to put in place though :-)!

    I suppose a calendar year is better that the decades (perhaps centuries?) the various Christian faiths have been discussing standardization between the churches. I wonder why there is agreement of the day/month of Christ’s birth (or is there)?

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    • Having visited Rome on Xmas day at the Vatican, you can see the dress code of countless Christian priests and nuns from all over the world. That annual homage to see the Pope on Xmas day sets pretty much the calendar day of Christ’s birth with a life size display of the Nativity of Jesus in the centre of St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Of course right in the centre is also the magnificent Egyptian obelisk tower cut from red granite bedrock in one piece from the days of the Egyptian pharaohs and hauled from the ancient city of Heliopolis and the seat of worship of the sun God, Re.

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  4. I understand retaining Easter and Christmas because there is a Christian tradition and a small minority still believe. However why do we have seven days (named after Viking gods) in a week? The bible does mention six days to create the universe and then resting but that is not a command to copy and generally most people do not work six days and rest for one day – for example all our shops are open.
    Wouldn’t twelve be a more sensible number since it is easier to work a half week or a third of a week?

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    • Everywhere around the world, it is a 7 day week. It works. No need to change. For many Asian countries, Saturday is a half day work which makes it 6 and a half working days.

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      • The Celtic church in Scotland and Ireland only accepted Rome’s date for Easter in the seventh century. When I went to live in Scotland in the sixties it was only very recent that Christmas has been celebrated; no council decorations, the golf course was closed on Sundays but open on Christmas day and my brother was phoned by a friend and asked if he would pick turnips on Christmas day.
        The Gregorian calendar calendar was adopted from 1582 by Catholic countries, 1752 by the UK, 1918 Russia and 1926 by Turkey.
        Chinese New Year ranges from January 21 to February 20; this distorts Chinese economic statisitics so this year the media was fully of reports of Chinese economy doing badly in February (and assigning it to Trump’s trade war) and then a month later the same media were reporting China production growth.
        So dates can change; why not the length of the week?
        Is there any evidence that the rapid adoption of Christianity by the pre-literate world is related to having every 7th day as a day of rest (of course that excludes women doing cleaning and cooking).

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      • Correction; it makes it a 5 and a half working days week in most of Asia with a day and a half break in a 7 day week.

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