As an ambitious young advertising salesman in Sioux City I had tenaciously but unsuccessfully been calling on a particular merchant for several months. He politely listened to my sales pitch and then told me to come back later.
On a September sales call, he dismissed me with,“See me after the holidays.” The holidays? Christmas and New Years were some three months away!
“The holidays?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, our New Years’ observance is next week,” the merchant replied.
Of course! The Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah! Where I grew up we had only one New Years’ Day and it was on January 1. This was my first year in a community with a sizable Jewish population and my Gentile roots were showing.
I thanked him for his time, wished him pleasant holidays and returned as requested.
In the years that followed, I became acquainted with several Jewish families and enjoyed learning about the Hebrew calendar and modern day observances of ancient Jewish holidays.
Calendars are a fascinating concept. I especially enjoyed the one in Uncle Dick’s garage when I was a kid. The pretty girls’ clothing was printed on a piece of clear film and if you lifted the film… Well, that’s another column.
The practice of observing a calendar goes back thousands of years. The Babylonians used a calendar of 12 lunar months of 30 days each. They added extra months as necessary to keep in synch with the seasons.
The Egyptians were the first to use a calendar based on the sun rather than the moon. Their year was comprised of a dozen months of 30 days each with five extra days at the end. Around 238 BC they added an extra day to every fourth year, similar to our practice of Leap Year.
In 45 BC Julius Caesar, upon the advice of Greek astronomer Sosigenes, changed the complicated old Roman calendar to one which was purely solar. The Julian calendar established the normal year as 365 days with an extra day added each fourth year.
Unfortunately, the Julian calendar was 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the solar year. Those minutes and seconds added up until 1582 AD when the vernal equinox occurred ten days early.
Church holidays were also occurring out of season, so Pope Gregory XIII took it upon himself to fix the problem. First, he issued a decree totally eliminating ten days, thereby bringing the vernal equinox back to March 21. He also came up with a new calendar which established that century years divisible evenly by 400 be leap years and that all other century years be common years.
The Gregorian calendar caught on slowly but today is used throughout much of the world and, for all practical purposes, still works.
Some folks still aren’t satisfied, though. Critics argue that our months are of unequal length, none of them being one-twelfth of a year. Among other complaints, they contend that the dates and days of the week vary from one year to the next.
Nearly 60 years ago the United Nations turned down a proposed “World Calendar.” Based on a 52-week, 364-day year starting on Sunday, January 1, the World Calendar would include a 365th day - Year-End Day - which would be observed without date or day of week. In leap years, an extra such day would be placed at the end of the 26th week.
An “International Fixed Calendar” has also been proposed. It is based on 13 months of 28 days each. The 365th day and Leap Year Day would be handled similar to the World Calendar’s.
Another proposal, the “Perpetual Calendar,” is similar to the other two, except Monday is the first day of every week and the quarters all begin on Monday.
Perhaps there is a better way to measure our years; I’ll let the experts debate that issue. For now, I think we’re better off concerning ourselves more with how we live during the year than how we measure it.