Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

Saturday Stub: What Day/Month/Year is it? Whatever…

Posted by Ethan Clow on December 31, 2011

So loyal readers/listeners of this site might have noticed an alarming* drop off in the number of witty, sarcastic, and sometimes angry posts by me the past few weeks.
*Depending on how seriously my opinions are for you.
The last couple weeks have been extra-ordinary for me in that I’ve been busy with a whole bunch of projects. Everything from starting a new job to working on an upcoming talk (see my skeptical highlight in the show notes for episode 146) and of course the weekly going on’s for Radio Freethinker. All this stuff combined to keep me very occupied.

Nevertheless, I’m here now to provide you with your skeptical Saturday fix.

You might have noticed that the year 2011 is coming to an end. In a few days the year will roll over to 2012 and according to some people, that’s all we get. For some people, this transition from one year to the next is a time for celebration, alcohol consumption and general revelry. For others it’s a time to face palm over the celebration of an arbitrary number change.

As a historian, people sometimes ask me about the origins of this arbitrary and somewhat unnecessary date roll over. Why do we celebrate it? What are its origins? and what does original meaning has been lost  in today’s drunken pub crawl?

The problem with these questions is that they pre-assume that history flows in this rather orderly, cause and effect, narrative where things have clear and defined origins and reasons for coming into existence. But this is a rather incorrect, or at least, difficult view on how meme’s and ideas travel through history. It’s not a straight line but rather this wibbly wobbly timey wimey…stuff.

And the history of the calendar is no different. So when I came across this video explaining how our calendar actually works, I was very impressed! Take a look:

Pretty neat eh?

See, we like to assume that at some point someone sat down and said “Okay, what we need here is a logical progression of measurements for time so that our society can function properly.” But this isn’t how things went down. Instead what we get is a hodgepodge of different memes and ideas, smushed together in odd ways, accounting for the influence of dozens of cultures and traditions so varied and hidden by the ages that we may never know the true meaning and history.

There are lots of instances of such a thing happening throughout time. Take for example the French number system. When Napoleon took power, he decided to change the system. So the current system of numbers in France is a strange combination of pre-Napoleon counting and post-Napoleon that continues to frustrate students learning French to this day.

Likewise, many skeptics might bristle at the Christ in Christmas but let’s not forget the Thor in Thursday or Mars in March.

Religious terms aside, few of us feel any cognitive dissonance over calling ourselves atheists and using the word “Thursday” to refer to Thursday. In time, we may also look back on the word Christmas and not immediately assume the Christ has a religious connotation.


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