Calendars Around the World

Mayan Calendar Stone

Mayan Calendar

January 2012: The beginning of the New Year on January 1st in much of the world, the beginning of the Chinese New Year today (January 23rd), and perhaps the beginning of the end (later this year), if you believe Mayan prophesies.

How do different cultures see time differently? Why have different calendars emerged, and how are they important in various cultures?

First, there are three basic types of calendars: Solar, Lunar, and Lunisolar/Solilunar.

Solar calendars are based on the earth’s rotation around the sun. Lunar calendars are based on cycles of the lunar phase and are used mainly for religious purposes. And lunisolar or solilunar, as the name suggests, is a mix of the two. They are based on the moon’s celestial motion and are basically solar calendars with dates indicating the moon phase. Solar calendars are good for agricultural (planting and harvesting) planning, and lunar calendars are good for estimating tides for coastal cultures.

Below are some of the main calendars in use today, why they emerged, and how they are configured.

Gregorian (Christian) Calendar

The Gregorian calendar (named for Pope Gregory XIII), a solar calendar, is the most widely used calendar in the world today—used by virtually all cultures, at least for civil purposes. It was adapted and finalized in 1582 from the Julian calendar (named for Roman Emperor Julius Caesar) to correct its accuracy by dropping 3 leap years every 400 years. This is when New Year’s Day was first celebrated on the first day of the calendar year—as opposed to at the spring equinox (Roman calendar) or just after the winter solstice (Julian calendar) as before.

Hijri (Islamic) Calendar

The Islamic calendar is the example of a pure lunar calendar with 12 months of 29.53 days. Each month starts with the first sighting of the lunar crescent by human eye after a new moon. It is counted from the Hijra—when Mohammed emigrated from Mecca to Media (July 16, 622 CE). As it is lunar-based, the months are shorter than in solar calendars. Therefore, 2012 is year 1433 in the Islamic calendar.

Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar is an example of a solilunar calendar. It has 12 months plus an extra “intercalary”/leap month about every 3 years. It represents the number of years since creation, calculated by adding up the ages of people in the Bible (i.e., the number of years since the birth of Adam, on the sixth day of creation). Therefore, 2012 would be year 5772 in the Jewish calendar.

Chinese Calendar

The Chinese Calendar is another example of a solilunar calendar. It has 12-year cycles, each related to a specific animal. Many other East Asian countries use the Chinese calendar but modify the animals used. Some characteristics of this calendar include the following: the lunar months begin at midnight of the dark/new moon; there are 12 months per year with an intercalary month every 2 or 3 years; the sun always passes the winter solstice (enters Capricorn) during month 11; and new moons and the time the sun enters a zodiac sign are calculated using the Chinese Time Zone. As this calendar is quite old, 2012 is year 4710 (Year of the Dragon) in the Chinese calendar.

Indian (Hindu) Calendar

The Hindu calendar is also a solilunar calendar. It also consists of 365 days, 12 months, and a leap year every 4 years, like in the Gregorian calendar. In addition to calculating years, it also figures four eras/ages (yugas) of time: Kali Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, Treta Yuga, and Krita or Satya Yuga. Kali Yuga lasts 432,000 years; Dvapara Yuga twice that long; Treta Yuga three times that long; and Krita/Satya Yuga four times that long. Together these form the Chaturyuga. We are currently in Kali Yuga. The years began on January 23, 3102 BCE—when Krishna is believed to have returned to his eternal abode. So, 2012 is year 5112 in the Hindu calendar.

Mayan Calendar

Another calendar with a grand vision of time is the Mayan calendar. It also originated long ago—at least 5th century BCE, if not before, and was adopted by the Aztecs and Toltecs. The Mayan calendar uses three different dating systems at once: the Tzolkin (“count of days”, divine calendar), the Haab (civil calendar), and the Long Count. The Tzolkin has a length of a 260 days associated with good and bad luck. It is a combination of two “week” lengths: a numbered week of 13 days and a named week of 20 days. The Haab has a length of 365 days—18 months of 20 days plus 5 extra days (Uayeb), which are considered bad luck. It consists of 52 cycles (the Calendar Round) and related to the length of the year. The Long Count is based on 20 days (kin). 20 kin=1 uinal, 18 uinal=1 tun, 20 tuns=1 katun, and 20 katuns=1 baktun, the longest commonly used cycle of time, which will be concluding on Dec. 21, 2012.

Balinese Calendar

Like the Mayan calendar, the Balinese calendar is also a complicated multi-calendar system. It uses the Hindu Caka and its own Pawukon calendar. The Pawukon calendar is based on 10 weeks of 1 to 10 days; only 3-day, 5-day, and 7-day weeks are regular; and it repeats every 210 days of 30 cycles of 7-day weeks.

Ethiopian Calendar

The Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic/Egyptian calendar, which is 7 to 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar. There are 13 months: the first 12 months have 30 days, and the last is an intercalary period (Paguemain) of 5 or 6 days for regular or leap years, respectively. The new year (Enqutatash) starts on September 11 (regular years) and September 12 (leap years).

Persian/Iranian Calendar

The Persian calendar is one of the oldest calendars in the world and the most accurate solar calendar used today, as it is based on astronomical measurement as opposed to mathematical calculations. It has the same starting point as the Islamic calendar. It originated in the 11th century, but has been modified many times through the centuries. There are 12 months of 29 to 31 days, the new year starts at the spring equinox, and the calendar is divided into periods of 2820 years of 88 cycles. In the Persian calendar, 2012 is year 1391.

So, the adoption of a calendar system by a culture has often been a combination of politics, daily lifestyle needs, and religion—as well as the need to standardize time with other cultures for business and ease of interaction.

About admin

I've been fascinated by world cultures all my life. I tried to teach myself Spanish at age 9, but that didn't work so well. I voraciously read books on all areas of the world as a teenager. I grew up to study languages and cultures in college, and have travelled in over 70 countries on 6 continents exploring what is unique and essential to each culture.
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