creating community through celebration

From Time To Time - July/August 2008

This is a column about July and August and I’ll get to that in just a moment. But first: one thing that can surely be said of Revels celebrations is that they are linked to the calendar. Well actually they are linked to cosmic events (solstices and such) which are the products of astrophysical events (axis inclination and such) which are described by the calendar (months and such) – in an approximate way. The New Year, for example, is said to begin on January 1st. That is just over a week from when the shortest day really occurs, but we get the idea. The gradual lengthening of days is an apt metaphor for the birth of hope that enlivens the New Year, and we’re down with that.

But it was not always so.

Until 1750, Europeans celebrated the New Year on the 25th of March. (note: “December” means literally the tenth month, so there were a couple more lunar cycles to pass before the year was complete). For nearly two hundred years, England and the rest of Europe were on completely different calendars, and several weeks in history never actually happened at all!

It can all be traced back to a little “tiff’ between July and August. It was during the reign of Julius Caesar that a calendar was created that pretty accurately divided the year into segments corresponding to the twelve lunar cycles. It even allowed for the irregularity of the 365 day model by instituting a “leap year” that would pick up the slack. (It takes the Earth about 365¼ days to actually make it all the way around the sun). In honor of this achievement, the 31- day month of “July” was named after Julius Caesar.

This didn’t sit well with Caesar’s successor, Augustus who after naming the following month after himself - “August” - discovered that it was a day shorter than its predecessor, “July”. And so he borrowed a day from February in both ordinary and leap years, and added it to August. This was the Julian calendar that successfully and accurately defined the length of the year - minus a trifling eleven minutes a fourteen seconds annually.

By the sixteenth century, this minor discrepancy had grown to a cumulative (and worrisome) ten days. So Pope Gregory XIII decreed that October 5th, 1582 should become October 15th, and that all years beginning new centuries would be exempt from leap year status unless divisible by 400 – trust me, this works – and the creeping time problem was rectified by the new Gregorian Calendar. (Note: If you’d like to dumfound your friends at social events, ask them “what major European event happened on the 12th of October, 1582 ?” Answer: “Nothing. There was no 12th of October in 1582.” They must have done something else to celebrate Columbus Day.)

The English, in their usual deliberate way, refused to accept this new calendar until they could be persuaded of its accuracy, and so after a suitable breaking-in period of a couple hundred years, an Act of Parliament declared that the 2nd of September,1750 was really the 14th of September (Note: similar opportunity for dumbfounding friends). In addition, the New Year was now declared to begin on the first of January, effectively erasing nearly three months worth of 1750 and jostling many centuries worth of important historical occasions into different calendar years.

This mutability of calendar time, typified by the status war between July and August only serves to emphasize the larger arc of the turning seasons by which mankind has always reckoned time. Although the days are long and warm just now, in just a few short months, we’ll all be together once again as we revel in the turning of the year. Mark your calendar now for the Revels celebration of the Winter Solstice from December 10th through the 21st - truly the Shortest Day.

- David Parr, Artistic Director