We’ve just experienced the solar new year, and now many cultures will celebrate the lunar new year.
Looking at calendars throughout history is an interesting way to explore multiple perspectives. Nothing is as ingrained in our lives as seven day weeks, twelve months, and 365 days per year. Challenge your students’ perceptions by investigating various solar, lunar, and lunisolar calendars.
Solar vs Lunar
Begin by exploring the advantages of a solar calendar and a lunar calendar.
A solar year occurs once every 365 days, 5 hours 49 minutes 19 seconds (or about 365.242 days). The Gregorian calendar, the internationally accepted calendar, follows a solar year and your students should be familiar with the Earth’s annual trip around the sun.
Meanwhile, a lunar calendar follows lunar cycles, which average 29.530589 days (thank you Wikipedia). Twelve of these cycles result in a lunar year that’s about 354.37 days long.
The Islamic calendar is a purely lunar calendar of twelve months.
However, very few cultures have used a true lunar calendar, instead opting for a combo lunisolar calendar.
For example, the Egyptians followed a calendar of twelve lunar months, each with thirty days. Since this only equals 360 days, they added five more days at the end to line up with the solar year.
Adding extra days to connect lunar and solar calendars is common across many cultures. These days are known as intercalary days.
The Aztecs had a calendar which lasted for eighteen, twenty-day periods, plus five extra days known as “nameless days” or nemontemi.
Not everyone used a 365 day year. Various Mesoamerican cultures used a 260-day “ritual” calendar that had no relation to the sun, moon, or seasons.
Weeks and Days
We take our seven day week for granted, but there have been a variety of week lengths throughout history.
The Egyptians used a ten-day week. There were exactly three weeks in their thirty-day months. The French calendar also used ten-day weeks during the French Revolution.
China also had periods where they used ten-day weeks.
The Romans used an eight-day week, with days named A through H.
The Soviet Union went with five day weeks, labeled with colors or Roman numerals. This only lasted a couple of years before they moved onto six-day weeks, and then, eventually, the seven day week.
So what on earth can we do with all of this information?
This might fit into a calendar-creation activity. I have my students design their own civilizations, to connect with our study of ancient civilizations.
I would ask them these questions about their civilization’s calendar system:
- How many months will you have?
- How many days will be in each month?
- Will this equal 365 exactly, or will you use intercalery days?
- What will your months be named?
- What will your days be called?
- Explain the significance of the names of your months and days.
The various calendar systems are fascinating and could turn into an independent study for interested students.
- Study the origins of the Gregorian calendar.
- Explore the transition from the Julian to Gregorian calendar.
- Examine the popularity of certain calendars in geographical regions.
- Investigate the influence of various religions on calendars.
- Digging into the month’s names opens up interesting avenues, and connects with Ancient Roman history (Simple Wikipedia is a student-friendly resource for this).
- Learn other language’s names for the days and months.
- Investigate the combinations of months and days that equal 365. For example, ten 36 day months gets us to 360.
- Add in weeks to the previous idea and try to make everything a nice, round number. How many options are there?
- Determine how many 354 day lunar years it takes to line back up with 365-day solar years. How many 260 day years?
- Develop calendars for different planets in the solar system (Jupiter’s solar year consists of 10,475.8 Jovian days).
- Explore the seasons’ impact on calendars (Rome considered winter a monthless period!)
When Would Your New Year Begin?
We take it for granted that January 1st is the start of a new year, but this was not the case for most of history. Stretch your students’ ability to think from multiple perspectives by discussing the various dates people have celebrated the new year.
The Beginning of January
“January” came into existence with Julius Caesar’s Julian Calendar of 45 BC. January, named for the Roman god Janus, was the first month and its first day marked the new year.
The Julian calendar gave way to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, now considered the international standard. However, this standardization didn’t officially set January 1st a new year celebration.
December 25 and March 25 competed for the honor in many countries due to Christianity’s rise: December 25th marks Jesus’ birth while March 25 represents the day the angel Gabriel visited Mary.
This new year’s confusion continued until very recently. In fact, the new year in all British territories was officially March 25th until 1750!
Here’s a table showing how long it took for January 1st to become standard across Europe.
The New Year on Other Calendars
Naturally, calendars that don’t even have a January cannot celebrate the new year on January 1st. Here are the dates of new year celebrations based on non-Gregorian calendars.
The Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, occurs around the 21st of March on the Gregorian Calendar. It is tracked using the Solar Hijri calendar. This new year date is celebrated by many other countries in the area.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and its date falls between September or early October.
The French used a special calendar for 12 years following the French Revolution. It placed new years near our September 23 (also known as Ian’s Birthday!).
The Islamic New Year comes about eleven days earlier each year on the Gregorian calendar. In 2008, it occurred in late December, but in 2013 it will fall in early November.
And the Lunar New Year, celebrated throughout Asia, occurs somewhere between January 21st and February 21st.
What Would You Do?
As a mind-stretching activity, ask students to group up and consider what day of the year would make thr most sense to celebrate a new year. Remind them to ignore the conventions of the Gregorian calendar. Great possibilities include:
- the end of winter
- the longest day of summer
- the date of the fall harvest
- a special historical event
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