December: The Other Tenth Month

Note: I wrote this way back in 1993. Remember, this is in the days before common use of the internet and the nascent web browser Mosaic, had just been introduced to the world. This was the time of library research and encyclopedias. A discussion on Twitter compelled me to see if I still had it around so voilà…)

So I’m sitting in front of my laptop on a dreary December day and I’m thinking, Why not write something? In classic Ray Bradbury fashion, I look around the room for a subject and my eyes are drawn to the calendar. A glaring red 25 alerts me that Christmas is on its way. I could pen a holiday remembrance, but one thing the world does not need is another Christmas story. Yes, I know, we all agree nothing brings out the joy of the holiday season quite like tales of dysfunctional families, but how to avoid the cliché of Christmas? 

Then it hit me: Why not write about December itself?  I already know that the Latin root deca means 10, and that it was originally the tenth month. From early grammar school memories, I recall that the Roman emperor Augustus wedged two extra months in the middle: one in honor of Julius Caesar (July) and one for himself (August) forever damning September, October, November, and December to misnomer hell. And that’s when it hit me: what in the heck was the calendar like before he added two whole months? July and August make up 62 days of the year and that’s a hefty chunk of days to just plop into a year without causing a few ripples. Perhaps the 10 original months were 36 days long, making for a 360-day calendar. I also vaguely remember the ancients having some problem with the year being too short, so 360 seemed likely. Was that why they divided up a circle into 360 degrees?  So I did a little research and low and behold, the ancients were possessed of a degree of intelligence on par with contemporary humans. Meaning: complete idiots. 

I don’t make this accusation lightly, I never have. Allow me to take you on an historical journey courtesy of the World Book Encyclopedia. It seems that most of the difficulty – and let me clarify, not idiocy, that will come later – started with the Babylonians who kept a lunar calendar based on the cycles of the moon (hence, month). The moon is big, it is obvious, and it repeats a cycle of phases with astonishing accuracy. Every 29 and a quarter days the moon is right back where it started. Basing their calendar on the moon, the Babylonians had 12 months of alternating 29/30-day intervals. Already the seeds of the modern day calendar were sown with its somewhat alternating month lengths. Apparently, the Babylonians and their neighbors were content with this 354-day lunar calendar until they began to notice snow in the middle of the summer. They never considered that the cycle of the moon hadn’t the tiniest connection with the length of an actual year (strictly a personal matter between Earth and Sun, and the Moon should just learn to mind her own business). Their solution: Let’s have the priests randomly, that’s right randomly, add a month 3 times over an 8-year period (huh???). According to World Book, this wreaked havoc on the population, and rightly so. Farmers were never sure exactly when to plant, when to harvest, and when to slaughter a first born. Conversations around the well (ancient water cooler) may have started with “Gee, do you think we’ll have a random month this week?” 

The Egyptians came along and – blessed with an exceptionally regular annual flooding of the Nile River – were able to construct a reasonably accurate calendar. They noticed the Nile flooded right after the early morning appearance of the bright star Sirius, which, as a side note, is best visible at night during December. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star, and its early morning visibility occurs in deep summer, hence “the dog days of summer”. And here I always thought it had something to do with the quality of the humid air having the aroma of wet dogs. Go figure. Anyway, this gave the Egyptians a calendar of 12 months, 30 days each and 5 extra “fun” days at the end of the year. So, you might be thinking, we’re getting close – 365 days and 12 months – right? Wrong. You have yet to factor in the Romans and one of the most idiotic calendars I can imagine. 

The first putative ruler of Rome, Romulus, instituted the Roman calendar: 10 months of varying lengths totaling up to 304 days. The first question you may well ask is 304? followed by, “What did they do with the missing 61 days?” I know I did. Pity. We were so close and now along comes this abomination. According to World Book, and I quote, “It seems they ignored the remaining 60 days, which fell in the middle of winter.” (It also seems the good people at World Book Encyclopedia ignored 1 day themselves). Ignored 61 days? Can you imagine that? Depending on the time of year, a simple “see ya next week” could have profound implications. And these are the people who went on to conquer the Western world. I now have little doubt that Romulus was indeed raised by wolves. Even more interesting, using names of gods from their religion they personalized the first four months (Martius, Aprilis, Maius, and Junius) then – ignoring a pantheon of their other gods – they gave up and simply counted off the rest: Quintilis (5), Sextilis (6), September (7), October (8), November (9), December (10 – Tada!).  

In 452 BC, along comes the emperor Numa. Numa decided it would be nice to have a calendar with a passing connection to reality. So, he creates two extra months (January and February – based on god’s names) 30 days each, to fill in the empty sixty-day vacancy. So far so good, but we’ve got to go three steps back now. Numa then decides to create yet another month, Mercidinus, which will have 22 or 23 days and be wedged in between February 23 and 24 every other year. (Huh??? – again) That’s right. I find it hard enough now to remember what day it is, no less whether or not there’s going to be a month of arbitrary days inserted smack dab into the middle of a month.  

This continues until 46 BC when Julius Caesar just got plain fed up with the whole thing. He asked his astronomer Sosigenes to fix the calendar. First, Sosigenes decrees that the calendar must be based on the solar year and not the cycles of the moon. That’s right, go by the sun – the big bright thing that’s always there. For those of you keeping track, it’s taken civilization only some 5000 grossly uneven, irregular years to figure that one out, with the probable exception of the Stonehenge creators. Maybe that’s why other people wiped them out. People seem adverse to things like facts and reality. To continue, Sosigenes then divides the year into 12 months of 30 and 31 days mostly alternating, except for February which would have 29 days, and 30 every fourth (leap) year. This finally puts us back to a 365 day year. Now here’s the best part. After over 300 years of ignoring some 61 days, and an additional 400 years of Mercidinus mid-month interruptions, the Romans call this year – the consistent, solar-accurate one created by Sosigenes and Julius – The Year Of Confusion. This is the God’s honest truth.  The month Quintilis was renamed Julius Caesar’s his honor, as mentioned, and later Sextilis renamed Augustus after his successor. Augustus, being vain, didn’t want his month to be smaller, so he stole a day from February and added it to his own.

To end this tale, this calendar worked until 1582 when Pope Gregory noticed that the year was about 10 days off. He discretely dropped ten days that year so that October 5 became October 15, and then decreed century years would only be leap years if divisible by 400 (1700, 1800, 1900: no – 2000: yes). This slight change has kept the calendar so accurate that the current year is only off by 26 seconds since the time of Gregory. And that, good people, is the story of why our twelfth month has the tenth name. 

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