“Have you got the 2018 calendar for me yet? The New Year is almost here you know. Try to see if you can get the ‘horse racing’ version one from the shops in town when you’re free,” my father remarks one morning during breakfast. Looking up from my bowl of noodles, I nod, at the same time silently admonishing myself for being forgetful. After all, it’s my unspoken duty to get him new ones at the end of each year.
Unlike me, my father doesn’t own a smartphone and depends heavily on his calendar to help keep track of the passing days and months. He especially favours the one that most Malaysians refer to as the ‘horse racing’ calendar as it displays not only the equine races held at turf clubs throughout Malaysia and Singapore, more importantly, it has all the national and state holidays in the entire year.
Businesses usually order this generic type of calendar from the printers around the last week of November and give them away to customers free of charge. This type of calendar comes with a firm cardboard on which all the printed pages of the months are stapled. The cardboard, which contains details of the establishment that produced it, serves as an effective form of advertising as the company is virtually assured of its daily usage for the coming 365 days!
After breakfast, I turn to my father’s calendar hanging at the top his back room door and scrutinise the last remaining page. My mind starts drifting back to the earliest of days when accidental calendar pioneers began making attempts to measure, record and to predict the passage of time.
BACK IN TIME
The only two measures of time available to our primitive ancestors then were the day (the measure between two nights) and the month (the time between new moons). The month was a well adjusted length of time for the early people as they related its magical significance to links with the female menstrual period.
These people however faced a more daunting task in determining the length of a year. The early agrarian societies tried their level best to achieve this as it had far reaching impact on their crop production. Some considered it the start of the year when a particular tree began sprouting shoots while others considered it a new year when a particular bird or animal was spotted for the first time after a long, hard winter.
Later, as Man began studying the heavens, early astronomers figured out a simple but accurate way of measuring a year. They realised that stars appear in the night sky at different times and places. When the same star returned to the same position like on the horizon at dawn, then a complete year was considered to have passed.
The Egyptian temple priests used this knowledge to cement their position as powerful soothsayers. The secret to their ability to foretell the all-important flooding of the Nile actually coincided with the time of year when Sirius, the Dog Star, rose above the horizon just before dawn.
More importantly though, the Egyptians’ observation allowed them to count the days in a solar year. They came up with 365 and went on to adjust the 12 months of their lunar year, making each 30 days long and simply incorporating the extra five days to the end of the year. With that landmark change, the Egyptians went down in history as the first people to embrace the solar calendar.
BIRTH OF THE MODERN CALENDAR
The next milestone in the evolution of the calendar we know today happened when Julius Caesar introduced the Roman calendar. Known as the Julian calendar, it was the first of its kind to feature the concept of the leap year.
Legend has it that Caesar learnt from famed astronomer Sosigenes that, unlike the Egyptian school of thought, the actual length of the solar year was 365 days and six hours. As such, an extra day was added in every fourth year. Naturally, Caesar chose to have that extra day added to February, the shortest of the Roman months.
The-then newly revised calendar spread rapidly well over the Roman Empire and later throughout Christendom. People embraced the Julian calendar, using it for almost every aspect of their lives. It remained, for many centuries, a very effective way of measuring the passage of time until yet another flaw surfaced in the 16th century.
The reason was that the solar year wasn’t exactly 365 days and six hours as thought by Sosigenes, but actually 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds! This may seem like a fairly minor error during Caesar’s time but by the 1580s, which was nearly 1600 years later, it had accumulated into a 10 day discrepancy between the calendar and reality!
The difference was most noticeable on occasions such as the equinox which began occurring 10 days earlier than the calendar dates of March 21 and Sept 23. As a result, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned German astronomer Christopher Clavius to find a solution.
Discovering that Julian calendar error amounted to about three days in every 400 years, Clavius soon came up with an ingenious adjustment. He proposed that century years (or those ending in ‘00’) should only be considered leap years if they were divisible by 400. This way, Clavius cleverly eliminated three leap years in every four centuries and his predicament was effectively solved.
Gregory accepted Clavius’ proposal and issued an edict for its immediate effect in the papal states. He made up for the 10 lost days by announcing that the day after Oct 4 in 1582 would automatically be Oct 15! As a result, 10 whole days simply disappeared in a blink of an eye in 1582!
The result, in the centuries since this reform, was that 1600 and 2000 were normal leap years while the intervening 1700, 1800 and 1900 didn’t have Feb 29. This revolutionary Gregorian calendar, named after the Pope, became the basis of the modern calendar as we know it today.
The Pope’s lead was followed in the same year by Spain, Portugal, France and Italy while German-speaking Roman Catholic states complied a year later, in 1583. The other Christian realms, however, dragged their feet on this issue as they were reluctant to admit that the Roman Catholic Pope had a valid point.
Great Britain managed to delay the change until 1752 and by that time the gap had accumulated to 11 days! Even then, the change caused a great deal of concern among the British. Going down in history as The English Calendar Riots, rowdy crowds took to the streets of London and other major towns believing that their lives were being shortened! They were also unhappy and suspicious at the moving of saint’s days and holy days, including the date for Easter!
“Why are you staring at the calendar for so long? Is there something wrong with it?” my father asks, returning indoors with an armful of vegetables from his productive garden. Jolted from my reverie, I sheepishly follow him into the kitchen. While my father prepares the greens for lunch, I ask if he has any old calendars stashed away somewhere. Although slightly perplexed by my sudden interest, he mutters that there might be some in the attic if I look hard enough.
Half an hour passes and I emerge victorious with a box filled with old calendars. Grinning from ear to ear, I show my father the fruits of my labour. Together we marvel at the colourful designs and attractive images. While a large majority are from the 1950s and 1960s, I managed to find a rare calendar from 1940.
Although the cardboard is slightly warped from age, the 77-year-old calendar is still in relatively good condition. That particular year held special significance to Malaya as it was during that time when the winds of war started blowing in our direction. Despite the rhetoric from the British saying that Malaya and Singapore were impregnable, most Malayans were already starting to prepare for the impending instability.
Another calendar from 1950 proves to be interesting as it’s the only one that appears to be unused. All the date pages, including the cover, have managed to remain intact after all these years. I flip through some and notice that each individual date page is multilingual. There are English, Jawi, Hindi and Chinese scripts printed prominently on them.
It was only in the mid 1950s when calendars started having complete days on the month printed in their entirety on a single but slightly larger page. This change could have been due to companies economising on paper or was done just for the sake of simplicity so that consumers could see all the days in the month at the same time.
Like the modern day ‘horse racing’ calendar, calendars in the past also carried the Muslim Hijrah and Chinese Lunar dates on them. I guess this was to cater to the multi-faceted nature of our society. Unlike its Gregorian counterpart, the Islamic calendar remains until today the only widely used calendar that’s based uncompromisingly on lunar months. Staying true to its initial concept, the Muslim calendar bears no adjustments to bring the years into balance with the solar cycle.
The 12 Islamic months alternate between 29 and 30 days, providing a year with either 354 or 355 days. It’s used by Muslims the world over to determine the proper days of Islamic holidays and rituals. These include the annual period of fasting and the exact time for their pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Islamic calendar owes its beginning to the year when Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers migrated from Mecca to Yathrib (today Medina) and subsequently established the first Muslim ummah (community) there. This momentous event is commemorated as the Hijrah.
Although reluctant to leave the calendars behind, I know I need to beat a hasty retreat before the shops in town close. Placing the precious vintage calendars carefully into some clean protective plastic bags for safe keeping, I bid my father farewell.
The new year will soon be upon us and just like in my father’s home, old calendars will be discarded and replaced with the new. I’m sure that while performing this act, many of us will at the same time be hoping for a better year ahead, be it in terms of business, studies or other personal endeavours.
Here’s to a very happy and prosperous 2018!