History of Calendars

A world without calendars would surely be a topsy-turvy place. It is hard even to imagine a world without calendars. Had there been a world devoid of calendars, there would be no way of keeping track of the weeks, months or years as they went past, or of anything else for that matter. We would not have the foggiest notion of how old we were. At school a child would not be promoted after a year, but would probably sit in the same class always! No birthday parties, no festivals, not even plans for a vacation—after all, these are all measured by a calendar. What a muddle everything would be!


The word ‘calendar’ comes from the Latin word calendarium meaning ‘account book’. It means the division of the year, similar to a set of accounts, into days, weeks and months. A calendar regulates all our affairs—at home, at work, even in the fields, and also it reckons time for religious and scientific purposes.

The history of calendars dates back to a long time indeed. Man had discovered means to measure time long before he invented any instruments to do so. Initially he began counting time by days, months and seasons, which were all natural time units. He thus had the first beginnings of a calendar.

Ancient tribes used a dawn-to-dawn reckoning to count the days. They probably called a number of days so many ‘dawns’ or ‘suns’. In those far-off days, there were no fancy calendars like the ones we have today. They simply used sticks with crude notches in them to count the days, or strings with knots in them to keep a record of so many full moons or even seasons. These were really our earliest calendars.

The calendars used by all ancient civilizations were based on natural phenomena, or units of time such as the day, month and year. Two kinds of calendars came into use—the ‘solar’ calendar which was based on the earth’s revolution round the Sun, and the ‘lunar’ calendar which was based on the movements of the moon. When we come to think of it, the intelligence of our forefathers truly laid the foundation for our way of life today!.

Egypt and calendars

Like many other things, the story of the calendar began in the great civilizations that awakened nearly 5000 years ago along the life-giving rivers of the Middle-East—in Sumer, between the Tigris and theEuphrates, and in Egypt, along the Nile.

The ancient Egyptians introduced the use of a practical calendar in 4200 BC. They were the first people to measure the year with some exactness, although their first estimate was not right. They started with a lunar (monthly) calendar based on the appearance of the moon every 29 or 30 days. As one year had 12 months, they calculated that this would give them a year of 360 days. It was a round figure that would have been most convenient for calendar-making, but as the Egyptians cleverly discovered, it was not very accurate.

The annual flooding of the river Nile on its surrounding banks was most important to Egyptian farmers, for it brought renewed fertility to the land. Egyptian astronomers began to time this important event, which was celebrated as the ancient Egyptian New Year. They were observant men. They noticed that this flooding occurred every year when Sirius, the bright Dog Star, first appeared in the early morning sky before sunrise. The annual morning appearances of Sirius had an interval that was a few days longer than the 360-day Egyptian year.
The puzzled astronomers probably scratched their heads and mused. It was obvious that their year was a little short. Their scientific calculations were better, based on the more accurate 365-day solar year. The answer lay in extending the old year by adding on an extra five days. This was done at the end of the year, and the extra days were set aside for feasting and revelry during the Nile’s annual flooding. The new 365-day year served government and administration. However old habits die hard and everyday life was still based on the old lunar year. So things remained.
Soon even the 365-day year was seen to be inadequate. Astronomers calculated that there were six hours missing in a year. The knowledge of the scholars of this period must have been tremendous!

It was around 240 BC that Ptolemy III, King of’ Egypt, tried earnestly to set the calendar right by adding an extra year every four years. He had come very close to finding the right solution—but alas, it was not to be! The powerful clergy refused to accept his ‘leap year’ which would change their long calculations and the dates of all religious festivals, which were based on the old calendars. This same leap year was adopted 200 years later by the Roman General and ruler, Julius Caesar.

Calendars in Central America

Another highly developed civilization flourished in Central America, quite cut off from the rest of the world. The Mayas here worked out their own time scale with astonishing accuracy. Their early astronomers achieved this by means of stars and planets. Their calendar used a ‘year’ based on the movements of the planet Venus which they studied closely. You can see it shine brightly in the western sky after sunset.

The Mayan astronomers drew up a ‘Venus year’ which has 18 months of 20 days each. However, they realized that this 360-day year was not quite right and added another five days to each year. These five extra days were considered to be unlucky.
The Maya people made the most elaborate calendars which they carved on stone. Indeed, these heavily worked stones with pictures and hieroglyphics 3,000 years old are the pages of their calendars for us to see even today. These calendars were very complicated, however, and their clumsy system of counting only made matters more difficult. Unfortunately, we do not know very much about this ancient civilization which was destroyed.

The Babylonians and the Greek

The Babylonians and the Greek had their own calendars too. Studies of cuneiform tablets found in Mesopotamia show that its people reckoned time as far back as 2,700 B.C., some where near the invention of writing. Like the Egyptians, the ancient Babylonians were drawn to the movements of the stars and the changing seasons. They developed a year of 360 days, and divided it into 12 lunar months of 30 days each. However, their astronomers soon realized that this year was short by about five days. In six years, this difference would add up to 30 days or a full month! They solved the problem by adding on a thirteenth month after six years.

The calendar which we, along with the rest of the world, use today came from the early Romans. They also gave us the names of months of the year.

It may sound surprising as a fat that this calendar was not as simple as it seems, but was arrived at after a long process of trial and error. This took many centuries, involved several famous personalities, and led to fierce arguments, even riots! Ultimately the present day Gregorian calendar as it is called, was designed, accurate to a day in every 3923 years!

The Romans

The Romans were a powerful force that ruled over the much known world at the height of their might. Wherever they went, the influence of their rich culture—the Roman alphabet, numerals and even their calendar—was adopted by different people far and wide.
When the Romans first took their calendar from the Greeks, it had a year of only 304 days, divide into ten months beginning with March. The last month of December was followed by an uncounted winter gap. In fact right till the reign of Julius Caesar the calendar was flexible and followed no hard and fast rules. Rulers lengthened or shortened months at will. If somebody important wanted more time to complete a project, he merely made the month longer! Students must have dreamt of lengthening the vacation months! Ultimately the calendar was changed so often that it became hopelessly confusing and meaningless, for business or administration.
A king of Rome called Numa Pompilus is believed to have added the months of January and February around 700 BC, since the ten-month year was much too short. They were attached to the end of the year in the uncounted winter gap, and were the new eleventh and twelfth months. January took its name from Janas, a two-headed Roman god who was believed to guard doors and gates. February derived its name from the Latin ‘Februarius’ which means ‘to purify’. Caesar pushed January to become the first month of the year with 31 days. March, May, July, October and December were also given 31 days each while the others had 30 days. However when the New Year was shifted to January 1, the names of the other months were not shifted. So we see a difference in the meanings of certain months and their order of appearance in the year. For instance September comes from ‘septem’ meaning the number seven, but its position in the year is ninth. October means ‘octo’ or eight but it is really the tenth month. Similarly November is from ‘novem’ or nine, but it comes in at number eleven. December’ old name has stuck as well, for it is named after ‘deca or ten, but is really the twelfth month of the year. The Romans never bothered to alter these names.

Julius Caesar is remembered for something else as well. He renamed the fifth month of the earlier calendar Quintilis after himself. It is called July since then and was given 31 days. Caesar borrowed one day from February to do this. So February was left with only 29 days. In a leap year it was reasonable to attach the extra day to February to give it 30 days. It was brought forward too, to become the year’s second month instead of the twelfth.
Once man had a calendar to organize his life he felt the necessity of grouping days together into periods shorter than months for his different activities .It was convenient to fixed different days for marketing, trade, fests and other activities.
By the first century BC the seven-day week had been adopted throughout the Roman world. The present names of the week days are taken from the Anglo-Saxon names of Gods. The day named after the Sun is Sunnandaeg or Sunday. The moon’s day is Monandaeg or Monday. Similarly the day named after the planet Mars is called Tiwesdaeg or Tuesday. It was the Norse god of War. The day named after Mercury is Wodendaeg or Wednesday. Jupiter’s day is Thordaeg or Thursday, the day of Thor, the Thunder God. The day of Venus is Friggdaeg or Friday. It comes from Freya, wife of God Woden and Mother of Thor. It is said that she was given a day so that she would not be jealous! Saturn’s day is Saeterndaeg or Saturday named after the Roman God, Saturn.

There have been suggestions to make a new world calendar where the present months will remain the same but the days will be re-arranged. However the idea of the world calendar has not become very popular. Perhaps this is because old habits die hard, and we are quite habituated to the existing one.

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