By Bob Batch
We should have made December 21st or 22nd, the Winter Solstice, the start of the New Year. It really would have made more sense to start the calendar on the day after the shortest day of the year, you know. Unless of course, we decided to start it on the day after the longest day of the year. But then we would be celebrating New Years Eve in June.
In our modern world it’s hard to recognize the correlation between the measurement of time and the astronomical workings it’s based on. To a lot of people, knowing minutes are ticking off on a “Luxurious diamond studded time piece displaying all the elegance of a finely made piece of jewelry” is more important than what each hour of the dial represents.
We all know that night and day are the result of the earth spinning in it’s orbit around the sun because we were taught that in school, but when you get up each day, if you happen to notice the sun, your perception isn’t that you are moving a thousand miles an hour toward the east, it’s that the sun is ever so slowly moving up into the sky above. So, even though we’ve learned about how the earth moves and all that, our experience is very different when observed from our spot in the scheme of things.
Even harder to truly appreciate, in our experience, is the planet’s orbit and the reason for the seasonal changes that occur. Without models and text books and someone having given us the information it would be very hard to imagine many of us in the modern world noticing that the earth spins around the sun on a slightly tilted axis which causes the seasons, and that a fairly constant speed which determines the length of the year.
What is really marvelous about all of this, as basic and mundane as it all seems from our perspective, is how all this measurement of time, in step with the motion of heavenly bodies developed.
Imagine yourself in a world with no concept of time keeping. There wouldn’t be any expectation of regular future events in such an environment. You wouldn’t know that a year was coming to an end or what to expect long range because all you could observe would be day and night. How long do you think it would take you to devise a way to accurately tell time?
When I went to school it was pretty much assumed that ancient people had no idea about any of the ‘Laws’ of astronomy. It was taught that astronomy and real time keeping were ‘Discovered’ during the Middle Ages or Renaissance. More recently though, researchers have begun to question the idea that ancient man had no knowledge of the relationship of the earth to the sun and other planets including the moon. In fact, there are some who posit that all the astronomy and calculation that developed into modern astronomy were only rediscovered five hundred years ago.
In any case, it’s clear that understanding time was a big concern to some people who lived thousands of years ago, as evidenced by the giant stone structures left in certain locations which appeared to have been built to observe and perhaps celebrate regular celestial events.
It makes sense that after all the observation and calculation involved in discovering that the movement of the earth, and it’s relationship to the sun and moon, is a giant time keeping device you might ‘Worship’ the evidence with monuments of stone. Naturally you might add a bit of superstition and legend to the whole concept after a time, which it seems every culture did.
Even today there are a few different calendars referenced, although not commonly used anymore. They all start on different dates and celebrate a new year at different times. Likewise, we really could have started our year on any day. In fact, the present calendar we use is kind of unique because it starts at a fixed year and not only counts up from that, but conveniently counts backward (BC) presumably to infinity which allows us to imagine the beginning of time to have, well, no beginning.
The one calendar we will be hearing a lot about this year is the Mayan calendar, because some people claim it ends in December. Actually, it doesn’t really, it’s just one of the cycles built into the system they used that’s ending. Once again any of the supernatural sounding aspects of their culture will attract the most attention because we all worry about the end of time.
Really though, all of this predicting and expectation is pointless. It’s as unfounded as any of the superstition and rituals that grew up around any previous cultures’ attempt to understand the workings of the universe. You can start your perception of time whenever you want. You can divide years, months, days and seconds. You can name the days and months whatever you want, but you have no control over it and nothing can stop it.