Consider: The Calendar
Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.
As often happens when considering a topic, one thing can lead to another and you find yourself wondering “how did I end up HERE?”. In our efforts to keep things “timely” here at Considered, we were planning some great holiday content (see: olive oil for Chanukah, Christmas trees for Christmas, etc.), and ended up wondering why Chanukah is so early this year. Like, in November kind of early. Surely the lunar and Gregorian calendars can’t become THAT out of sync or some years we would be celebrating Chanukah in July! That all got me thinking about why different groups use different calendars and how time, while it feels unchangeable to us all, is really a collective decision.
Today we will learn about how our calendar evolved into the tool we use today and also paved the way for the widespread adoption of your art friend’s favourite font, Helvetica!
The most well-known ancient calendars are the Jewish and Islamic, both based on the phases of the moon. In fact, the oldest calendars were actually solar! Archeologists have found a number of structures all over the world that date back to 12,000 years ago and track the changes of the location of the sun over 12 month periods.
The Sumerian calendar was the predecessor of the religious lunar calendars that are still in use today. It was relatively simple and based on observed phenomena. A year was divided into 12 lunar months, each starting on a new moon - when we see the side of the moon not illuminated by the sun (i.e. “the dark moon”). To account for the lunar year being 354 days (vs 365.25 in the solar calendar) every three years or so there would be a leap month, because if the calendar got too far out of sync you would be planting and harvesting at the wrong time, among other issues.
The concept of weeks did not exist and holidays would be celebrated on the first, seventh or fifteenth of the month. This tradition was carried forward into the Jewish calendar. Because a lunar year is 10-12 days shorter than a solar year, religious observances calculated using a lunar calendar shift compared to the solar/Gregorian calendar. Holidays like Chanukah, Passover, Ramadan and Eid all float and change relative to Gregorian dates. Passover is usually the holiday that stays closest to its Christian counterpart Easter because both are calculated based on the March full moon - because “Good Friday” occurred the day after the Passover Seder.
Julius Caesar gave us many things. The Caesar haircut, Little Caesars Hot and Ready Pizza and the Julian calendar. Even titles like Kaiser and Tsar are based off this guy’s name. He tasked his mathematicians with overhauling the Roman calendar, and in 46 BC the Julian Calendar went into effect. Previously, the Roman calendar operated in a similar fashion to the Jewish calendar, with the insertion of a leap month 7 times every 19 years. The insertion of the leap month was a decision of the senate and Roman politicians would exploit this to lengthen their own terms in office or shorten those of their competitors. It got so bad that 63-46 BC are known as “The Years of Confusion” because the average Roman outside of a city had little idea what day it was.
The Julian calendar was the first to introduce the idea of the leap year. The Julian calendar pegs the length of the year at 365.25 days, so adds 1 day every four years. The actual length of a year is 365.24219 days, which made the Julian calendar off by one day for every 128 years it was in use. All these problems go back to the definition of time. If a year was 348 minutes longer, we would not need leap years. As the cast sings in the hit Broadway musical RENT “525,948 minutes, 525,948 moments so dear!” …or something like that.
Time was calculated top down. The length of a day is known (sun comes up, sun goes down), so “they” divided that by 60 (minutes per hour) to get 24 hours. If you use the sun to calculate the length of a day, the day’s length shifts depending on the seasons (longer in summer, shorter in winter) but day + night always equals 24 hours.
That method of calculation was too loose for modern science, so scientists looked for something in nature that was that exact length. A second is now defined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom (at a temperature of 0 K).” and they multiply that by 60 to get a minute, 360 to get an hour and so on. It took until 2019 for scientists to find an equivalent explanation for mass, or, the kilogram. Until then a kilogram was defined as the weight of “Le Grand K,” a specific block of platinum in a French lab.
It was up to Pope Gregory XIII to correct the drifting calendars. He did so by making each year that is divisible by a 100 not a leap year, unless the year is divisible by 400. The years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are. Catholics made the Gregorian their civil and religious calendars, while some sects of Christianity, including Greek Orthodox, kept the Julian as a religious calendar. As the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America explained it to me: “the Orthodox Church continues to base its calculations for the date of Easter on the Julian Calendar, which was in use at the time of the First Ecumenical Synod.” Which basically means that Greek Orthodox Easter comes after Catholic Easter.
When the Gregorian calendar was adopted by the Catholic part of Europe in October 1582, they adjusted the dates around the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi (where it is customary to bless pets! You’re not only a good boy Rex, you are a holy one!). The feast was held on October 4, 1582, and the next day was October 15. Since not every country was Catholic, it took a number of years for other countries to adopt the calendar. Greece didn’t go full Gregorian until 1923! Opa!
When I think of a calendar, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the Stendig Calendar. Which is weird, but probably explains why I write this newsletter and you read it. Charles Stendig and his wife Eleanore where early importers and advocates for Danish and European design in the North American market. They hired a relatively new designer named Massimo Vignelli to create a promotional calendar for them (his US firm, Unimark, had only been established a year earlier).
The iconic calendar is the only calendar in the MOMA collection and popularized the relatively new font of Helvetica! The months randomly alternate black and white and the top binding strip has three black eyelets for easy level hanging. The design has remained unchanged, only updated annually with the dates of the year ahead. Vignelli would go on to design some of the more iconic brand identities like IBM, American Airlines and most famously, the New York Subway Map.
A Stendig will set you back $90 or ($7.50/month). This calendar of dogs in yoga poses will set you back $19 by comparison. At the risk of angering “big calendar,” calendars usually go on sale in January.
If you ever get a chance, I recommend catching The Clock, a 2010 art installation produced by Christian Marclay. It is a supercut of clips from movies where the time is shown or otherwise indicated, and is synced to the time of day in the location where the movie is being seen. So, if you are fortunate enough to catch it at 6:00 AM, you will see Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day alarm clock tick over. Considered favourite, The Walker Center, has a great description. TIME TO GO!