Calendars . . .
Differences and similarities
by James Lamont (revised, originally published in 2009)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To survey differing calendar systems to identify different cultures and norms.
Preparation and materials
- None required.
- As we move into a new year, there is a lot to think about. Most of us would say that we are now in the year AD 2020. This is because, according to the Christian story, the angel Gabriel descended to Earth 2,020 years ago to announce the coming of the baby Jesus.
Some people believe that this was exactly 2,020 years ago, although many Christians question whether that was the exact time.
All the same, the year is named 2020 in accordance with a system known as the Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by the Roman Catholic Church in 1582. (It gets its name from Gregory XIII, the Pope who introduced it.)
The Gregorian calendar has since become the standard calendar for most of the world. Sometimes, rather than using the letters BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini, which means ‘in the year of our Lord’) with the year, people use CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era) instead. In this way, they avoid using Christian terminology.
- However, other calendar systems exist, too. In Japan, for example, the year is not just 2020, it is the second year of the Reiwa era. The era began when the current emperor ascended to the throne in 2019. Each emperor chooses a title by which his reign will be remembered, and the new Emperor Naruhito selected ‘reiwa’, which means ‘beautiful harmony’. However, in Japan, it is considered bad form to refer to the current emperor by the name of his era because it is a posthumous name.
- In Ethiopia, the year is not 2020, but 2012. A new year begins on 11 September, or 12 September in a leap year. The Ethiopian system consists of 12 months of 30 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.
- 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. Many of us may expect New Year’s Day to be on 1 January, but Jewish New Year usually falls around September to October and is not the same day each year. In 2019, Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) began on 29 September and ended on 1 October. This year, it will start on 18 September and finish on 20 September.
In contrast, for Muslims, Islamic New Year will be celebrated between 19 and 20 August in 2020.
- 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 that seem natural, upon which much of society is based, are relative – that is, they are determined by each country’s culture and history.
- As well as indicating the differences between cultures, the calendar can also point to the similarities.
Although global culture has adapted to the Gregorian system, communities cling to their traditional models. In addition, holidays and special days may vary, but the reasons for these dates and days are similar and we can understand them: the birth of a leader or inspired teacher, for example; 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 may vary, yet we now depend upon it to a large extent. The same is true for Christmas Day. Many believe that Jesus was probably born in spring or early summer because shepherds did not stay out all night in the winter months!
Many dates are important in our individual lives or in the lives of our families, such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries or the anniversary of the death of a relative.
Ask the students the following questions, allowing time for reflection or even discussion if appropriate.
- What other dates in your life have become important, but are based on events that could have happened on some other day?
- 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?
Point out that our neighbours may celebrate festivals that we know little about. Perhaps this year, we could ask about them, so that we can learn more about different cultures or faiths and the things that they celebrate.
Thank you for the markers in our lives,
The birthdays, anniversaries and 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.