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. 

A little gift for the holidays

Hi and Happy Holidays. Some of you may or may not know that I had polished the characters of Mephistopheles and JR over the years with little vignettes written solely for the enjoyment of my friends. I recently came across one of them. It’s just a scene with little rhyme or reason outside of illustrating the standard behaviors of these two.

There is a mention of a third, off-screen character, Oak (Oakley Tree – his parents are to blame for that one). JR’s best friend, Oak is nearly as adept as JR is for getting into trouble, albeit mostly by accident.

Anyway, this is for fans of JR and Meph, I hope you enjoy it.


With his ears still ringing, JR tore into the entrance way of the mansion then veered left towards the dining room so fast his feet nearly slipped out from under him. When he reached the dining room he pulled up short, removed his World War II US army helmet, held it to his chest, then let out a slow whistle as he surveyed the scene of devastation before him. The magnificent 16-foot long mahogany dining table that had dominated the room was shattered into a strewn pile of broken planks, table legs, and copious amounts of splintered wooden shards; with ground-zero being the twisted wreckage of an antique iron and crystal chandelier resting where the table center used to exist. The mooring of the chandelier was replaced by a significant hole in the ceiling around which a mixture of plaster dust and smoke swirled. The rest of the surface of the ceiling was chaotically tossed about the room in the form of huge chunks of plaster.

On the far end of the room, at the former head of the former table, Mephistopheles sat motionless – an icy stare transfixed onto JR. At about chest height of his body, which was liberally covered with plaster powder, a raised empty fork was held horizontally in his right hand. Amidst the rubble of the table at Mephistopheles’ feet, was a shattered dessert plate under a partially mangled wedge of pumpkin pie. The front end of the slice was preserved enough to clearly exhibit a missing triangular piece that, at one point, must have rested on the now-suspended fork. This, JR judged, is why you don’t use fine china for daily use. He would have relayed that point to Mephistopheles, but some instinct, probably the survival one, prevented him from doing so.

JR carefully entered the room, gingerly stepping over debris while moving closer to the seated figure of impending doom. If Meph wasn’t here I might have been able to come up with a plausible excuse – well maybe not so plausible – but he witnessed the whole thing, so this is gonna be tricky. He was at a loss for words, but that never stopped him before and it wasn’t going to now.

“Huh, a teensy bit more of damage than I expected. I, um, was hoping you wouldn’t notice. Maybe I should just go get the vacuum and tidy up a bit.”

Mephistopheles began to rouse from his petrified state, at first trying to find a place on the non-existent table to put down his fork. It moved left and right a few times, and for a moment it looked as if he would place it on the arm of his chair, but with a sudden flick of his hand the fork flew out lodging into the wall on his right. He then shifted in his chair into a more comfortable position. He brushed some crumbs of debris from his pants as if it would make a difference. As always, when dealing with the fallout of JR-centric destruction, he began to speak with carefully measured and disturbingly calm, words.

“As I see it, or at least saw it from my vantage point through that now-shattered window, you maneuvered a tank into the courtyard, positioning it so that the turret was aimed at the house. Next, you fired a mortar round which – and here I just have to assume for the moment – obliterated the bedroom directly above us, precipitating the demise of a significant portion of my dining room. So far, correct?”

“Yes. Will that be all?”

“Hardly. But before I commence to cross-examine you, is there any other emergency that I should be aware of? Maybe the house is on fire? Perhaps, sections are about to cave in atop my head?”

“Oh, no, it’s all done with. I think we’re good from here on. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“I should be so lucky. To continue – from personal experience, I know asking you ‘why’ is never worth the effort, but I can’t help myself. I’m curious by nature. Why, then, did you fire a tank upon my person and my otherwise pleasant mid-afternoon snack?”

“Oh that,” JR dismissed as if it was an obvious and almost irrelevant fact, “Oak and I were playing and the Frisbee got stuck on the roof; so, I needed to use something to knock it down. You know if you don’t mind me saying, it’s really quite funny when you think about how stuff doesn’t always turn out the way you think it will. You really need to have a sense of humor.”

“Oh, I have a sense of it alright,” he snapped back and then proceeded, “So you used a tank…”


“… to remove a Frisbee…”


“… from the roof.”


“Again, merely because I am keen to know, what, pray-tell, was Oakley’s opinion of your Frisbee solution?”

“Well he thought it was a bit over the top at first.”

“Really? Who’d have thought common sense could exist in such close proximity to you.”

“He thought a rifle could have done the trick and, after some discussion, we figured a bazooka could be the fallback plan…”

“And there it goes.”

“…but we know how you disapprove of firearms, so my options were limited.”

“And that’s all you have to say about it?”

“Yep. No. Wait. Umm, oh yeah, Oak told me that if you caught us I should say I’m sorry. So… I’m sorry.”

“At least I got a heart-felt apology,” Mephistopheles said dryly. “You do know what happens now, don’t you?”

“I’ve got some really good ideas, but I figure you’re not going to like any of them.”

“First, at some point soon I’m certain; the local authorities are going to arrive to investigate. You are going to provide them with a reasonable excuse – and I cannot over-emphasize the term reason-able – as to why the tank I agreed to keep on my grounds for the township while it was being refurbished for a Veteran’s day celebration, was commandeered to remove a portion of this building. And, the word Frisbee had better not enter into that discussion. In fact, I’d rather you get that devious little pal of yours to come up with something. I’d swear he was born part lawyer anyway. Next, the two of you are going to spend the better part of the holiday season and beyond, working to restore all of this,” he waved one hand upward in a circle, “back to its original state. I’m going to hire contractors immediately, but make no mistake; they will have instruction to give you and Oak the worst jobs. Then, once everything is back to normal, we will discuss your punishment. Is all of that clear? Any questions?

“Yes,” JR said as he pointed to the ruined piece of pumpkin pie on the floor, “are you going to finish that?”

Some notes from JR…

JR’s guide to characters from The Devil and the Wolf

Hey folks! JR here. Thought I’d give you a brief summary of the main characters in the book. Let’s start off with the two most important:

Me, JR Wolfe – Smart, funny, clever, good-looking and a jack of all trades. Basically, everybody’s bestie and why not.

Mephistopheles – pronounced Mef-i-stof-eh-lees. Say it like, “let me check for fleas”. But, if you ever meet him, call him Meph – he hates that. He’s some devil guy that tells, long boring stories. Your basic killjoy.

Jenna (leader), Levi (skeptic), Delia (heart), Rob (id) – Meph calls them the Scooby Gang. I call them my Flamigos (Florida Amigos). By chance, they get pulled into the story and end up representing all of humanity.

Dale and Connie Carina – Your basic low-lifes. Two scheming people who are out for themselves. (True, some might say that last sentence could describe Meph and me, but we’re lovable. Well, I am.)

Sachiel, Cassius, Raphael and Gabriel (cameo appearance) – A bunch of angels who turn out to be pretty cool.

Eremiel – Another angel who turns out to be not cool. As it happens, he was right about Meph’s schemes and somehow that made him the bad guy. But that’s okay, because I think he wanted to dissect me or something. As I said, not cool.

Lilith, Lucifer, Belial, Nick – A bunch of Meph’s friends from Hell. That Lilith is a hoot.

Nergal – A ruthless power-hungry devil. I really, really didn’t like him.

There are other humans, angels, devils and demons, and I don’t want to dismiss them. They’re kind of like spices and herbs added to a dish, but you really don’t have to invest in them for the story’s sake.

Happy reading all. Hopefully seeing you again soon,


It Just as Easily Could Have Been Fat Sewer Rat Day

Sometimes I imagine earth has been contacted by an intelligent alien civilization. In the early exchanges with these aliens, we may be called upon to show (prove?) that we too are intelligent. To me, chief among the list, and I wish to emphasize this is an enormously huge list, of embarrassing things to explain is Groundhog Day.

Can someone tell me why the most technologically advanced nation on this earth spends every February 2nd yanking an obese rodent out of a hole in the ground to determine weather patterns for the next six weeks? And what exactly does it mean when they say, “If it sees its shadow”? If it’s a thickly overcast day, nothing is going to see its own shadow, so why bother. If the intended meaning is to see if a thing casts a shadow, then again, why bother? Holding up a stick can do that. And what’s the alternative to six more weeks of winter? (Someone I once posed this to suggested that the alternative is “six more weeks until spring.” Huh?)

From what I’ve learned, as popular as it is in this country, Groundhog Day originated in Germany. As told, in the old country the hedgehog was elected to be the animal of choice for winter divination. Now there’s an idea: Let’s go out into the dead of winter and wake up a small rodent sporting needle-sharp spines on its back. Who was the lucky person chosen to pry that thing open to determine if it saw its own shadow?

Coming to this country, German settlers found themselves bereft of the European hedgehog. Rather than opt for the startlingly similar American Porcupine they settled on the more docile, spineless woodchuck. But then why aren’t we celebrating Woodchuck Day? To arrive at the answer, you need to follow a rather twisted path. First, the woodchuck doesn’t have anything to do with wood, but rather is an English mispronunciation of the Algonquin otchik. The Dutch came along, saw the woodchuck (otchik) and called it an aardvark because – and here the logic isn’t clear and that never surprises me – it reminded them of an aardvark. Yes, the aardvark – the much larger, long-snouted African anteater. Now aardvark is Dutch for earth pig and, if you use a synonym substitution, you get ground hog, which, oddly enough, is a name that befits the chubby, earth-burrowing rodent better than either aardvark or woodchuck. Could this be anti-irony? Keep up with me, because we haven’t even gotten to this ‘six more weeks of winter’ thing yet.

Let’s look at the math. My life has been spent in the New York / New Jersey coastal areas. If you’ve ever checked a weather zone map, you will notice that this area has a weather zone that goes across cities such as Atlanta and then creeps up the coast ending in a thin sliver on the Jersey coastline. I make this point simply to underscore that my experiences of winter and its associated weather is more akin to someone living in Atlanta than someone in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania – say, in a town like Punxsutawney.

Having clarified this, let us proceed. February 2nd – Groundhog Day – is some 47 days shy of the Spring Equinox: giving us nearly 7 weeks to an astronomical definition for the end of winter. From an agricultural standpoint, the last frost date for my region, indicating it’s safe to plant, is April 15th, which is 72 days – barring leap-years – from Groundhog Day: coming to about 10 weeks. Now from what I can find out, if the groundhog sees its shadow that’s 6 more weeks of winter, if not, there will be less so (no one says how much less). So the question is, with spring officially off by almost 7 weeks, and with the frost date some 10 weeks away (for an area much milder than Punxsutawney), then what in the heck does it mean to have 6 more weeks of winter?

For further research, I browsed the Web. Not surprisingly, there are a number of web sites dedicated to Punxsutawney Phil – some more fervent than others. After diligently hunting, I uncovered some Phil-related details.

Every prognosticating groundhog in Punxsutawney is named Phil. Furthermore, the current Phil is kept well fed and well heated, so chances are he’s not hibernating like his wild brethren. I quote: “The groundhog comes out of his electrically heated burrow, looks for his shadow and utters his prediction to a Groundhog Club representative in groundhogese. The representative then translates the prediction for the general public.” Groundhogese? Does this embarrass you as an intelligent adult? It does me. On the other hand, the never ending stream of Phils puts to rest a rather grisly spectacle that used to pop into my mind every year at this time. I would think to myself “How old is that groundhog?” One of these years, they’re going to take him out of his hole and find that he cashed in his chips sometime during November. I have this mental movie of a rotted groundhog carcass pulled out by unwitting public officials on Groundhog Day to the obvious horror of the visiting crowd. People gasp. Children cry. Then the bottom half of Phil falls off.

The original prediction concerning whether we have a prolonged winter or not comes from a verse concerning Candlemas Day, which is February 2. The verse (some say Latin, others early Christian, and others Scottish) is:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.

This appears to be built on the tried and true rain, rain go away theory – if it’s a cloudy day on February 2, winter skips town immediately. I assume the climate was a bit milder where this rhyme was created, making the Scots as authors a bit of a long shot.

The end result: Groundhog Day has nothing to do with groundhogs or hedgehogs or even anteaters for that matter. And, 6 weeks lacks any significance as a timeframe. For 110 years in this country, we have taken one tiny bit of sing-song ignorance and enlarged it up to an idiocy of truly gigantic proportions.

About that cow figurine…

Just a quick note, because I was asked a few times about it. Yes, it is real and was probably in existence during the time of Jehoel’s flashback.  Here’s a link to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC) where I believe it is currently on display.


(How cute is that?)