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The Origin of Calendars

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Summary

Calendars were invented by humans to keep track of time over long periods.  The history of humanity teaches us that there were, and still are, numerous different calendars. The base unit is always the day (more precisely, a complete day-night cycle), but everything becomes more complicated if we try to count the cycles of the Moon (almost a month) or the cycle of the Earth’s motion around the Sun (the year). In effect, neither one nor the other corresponds to a whole number of days (about 29.5 days for the moon’s cycle and about 365.25 days for the year).

We group calendars into three major categories:

  • Lunar calendars, which are synchronized with the cycle of the Moon, as with the Hegira (Islamic) calendar
  • Solar calendars, which are synchronized with the Sun, having the advantage of thereby  corresponding to  seasonal changes.  The Gregorian Calendar, the most widely used one in the world, is a solar calendar.
  • Lunisolar calendars, like those of the Chinese and the Hebrews. These follow the lunar cycle to define months, but additional months are inserted in order to “resynchronize” with the Sun. The Hebrew calendar thus  has 7 years of 13 months,  starting again every 19 years, plus 12 other years that have only 12 months.

Remark:  Lunar and lunisolar calendars are based on observation of the Moon (the New Moon for the Hebrews and the Chinese, and the first crescent for the Muslim calendar. ) There can be as much as three days difference between the astronomical date of the lunar phase and its date of observation, depending on the location. The dates of the Islamic calendar therefore vary from country to country.

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Learning goals

  • To compare the 4 principal calendars.
  • To define the durations of the day, month and year.
  • To define lunar, solar and lunisolar calendars.
  • To introduce the origin and the history of the principal calendars.

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