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Calendars, calendars

To survey differing calendar systems and so recognize different cultures and norms.

by James Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To survey differing calendar systems and so recognize different cultures and norms.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


  1. As we move into a new year, there is a lot to think about. Probably most of you would say that we are now in the year AD 2013. This is because, according to the Christian story, two thousand and thirteen years ago, the angel Gabriel descended to Earth to announce the coming of the baby Jesus.

    Some people believe that this was exactly two thousand and thirteen years ago, though many Christians doubt that that was the exact time.

    All the same, the year is named 2013 in accordance with a system known as the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by the Roman Catholic Church in 1582. (It’s called the Gregorian calendar after the Roman Catholic Pope, Gregory XIII, who introduced this calendar.)

    The Gregorian calendar has since become the standard calendar for most of the world. Often, however, people will not use the letters BC and AD, but will put CE and BCE, which mean ‘Common Era’ and ‘Before the Common Era’. In this way they avoid using Christian terminology. (AD means ‘In the year of our Lord’ and BC means ‘Before Christ’.)
  2. However, other calendars exist.

    In Japan, for example, as well as being 2013, this year is the twenty-fifth year of the Heisei era. The number 25 refers to the fact that it is 25 years since the ascension of the current emperor. Each emperor chooses a title by which his reign will be remembered. ‘Heisei’ means ‘eternal peace’. In Japan, it is considered a faux pas to refer to the current emperor by the name of his era as this is a posthumous name.

    In Ethiopia, the current year is 2005. A new year begins in September, normally on the eleventh day of September, or the twelfth in a leap year. The Ethiopian system comprises twelve months of thirty days, plus a short thirteenth month of five or six days. The different date is based on an alternative system of calculating the date of the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary.
  3. In many cultures the start of a new year is marked by a major celebration.

    Other important days are also structured around the calendar. National holidays, which fall upon the same date every year, are an example.

    These important days in the calendar vary from culture to culture. We may think that New Year’s Day must obviously be on 1 January, but for Jews, for example, New Year’s Day usually falls around September to October and is not the same day each year (this year it’s on 5 September), and for Muslims it’s usually in November: 4 November this year.

    Although the calendar feels like a natural part of life, as real as the weather or the waxing and waning of the moon (upon which many calendars are based), the calendar is, in fact, fixed more by consensus than by nature. Structures and beliefs which seem natural, upon which much of society is based, are relative – that is, they are determined by each country’s culture and history.
  4. As well as indicating the differences between cultures, the calendar can also point to the similarities.

    Though global culture has adapted to the Gregorian system, communities cling to their traditional models. And though holidays and special days may vary, the reasons for these dates and days are similar and we can understand them: the birth of a leader or inspired teacher, for example; or a great victory; or a vision given by God.

    People across the world can learn from one another while still maintaining their own values, culture, and ways of life.

Time for reflection

The date of the New Year was random, yet we now depend upon it, to a large extent. The same is true for Christmas Day. (Jesus was probably born in spring or early summer, since shepherds did not stay out all night in the winter months.)

What other dates in your life have become very important, but are based on events that could have happened on some other day? Your birthday is the most obvious example.

Are there any other family events that you celebrate on the same date every year?

Does your school have annual celebrations on a fixed date?

How tied have you become to these dates?

How important are local traditions? It may be that your neighbours celebrate festivals that you know nothing about. Perhaps this year you could ask, and so learn more about a different culture or faith.

Lord God,
thank you for the markers in our lives,
the birthdays, anniversaries, events that happen every year.
May we value these dates in other people’s lives as well as in our own,
especially if they are celebrating something that we know little about.


‘Be thou my vision’ (Hymns Old and New (Kevin Mayhew), 56)

Publication date: January 2013   (Vol.15 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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