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All about the ABCs of calendars

What is the Gregorian calendar?

The current international calendar and the world’s most widely used one is the Gregorian
calendar, first proposed by Italian doctor Aloysius Lilius and decreed on February 24,
1582, by Pope Gregory XIII, after whom it was named. It was adopted to rectify the
errors in the older Julian calendar. Due to its obvious connotations of Christianity,
sometimes it’s used by replacing the traditional era notations “AD” and “BC” (“Anno
Domini” and “Before Christ”) with “CE” and “BCE” (“Common Era” and “Before Common
What was the Julian calendar?
Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 45 BC. The Julian calendar was a reform
of the Roman calendar and was probably designed to approximate the tropical year, or
the time taken by the Sun, as seen from the Earth, to return to the same position along
its path. It has a regular year of 365 days divided into 12 months, and a leap day is
added to February every four years. Hence the Julian year is on average 365.25 days. It
was in common use in Europe until the 1500s, when countries in that region started
changing to the Gregorian calendar.
What was the leap year error?
Although the new calendar was much simpler than the pre-Julian calendar, the algorithm
for leap years was mistaken. It added a leap day every three years, instead of every four
years. According to Roman grammarian and philosopher Macrobius, the error was the
result of counting inclusively, so that the four-year cycle was considered as including
both the first and fourth years. This resulted in too many leap days. Augustus remedied
this discrepancy after 36 years by restoring the correct frequency. He also skipped
several leap days in order to realign the year and it earned him a place in the calendar
as the eighth month was named after him.
What long-term problems did the use of the Julian calendar cause?
On average, the astronomical solstices (the time when the Sun appears to reach its
northernmost and southernmost extremes) and the equinoxes (when the Sun is
positioned directly over the Earth’s equator) advance by about 11 minutes per year
against the Julian year. As a result, the Julian calendar introduced an error of one day
every 128 years. So every 128 years, the year shifted one day backward with respect to
the calendar. By 1582, that meant that the world was running 10 days ahead of time. To
remedy this problem, which was causing the vernal equinox, and consequently the date
on which Easter was being celebrated, to slowly drift forward in relation to the civil
calendar, the Gregorian calendar was introduced.
How are there 97 leap years in 400 years?
Every year divisible by 4 is a leap year, except for most of the years divisible by 100.
Among the latter, every year divisible by 400 is a leap year. So, 1700, 1800, 1900,
2100, and 2200 are not leap years. But 1600, 2000, and 2400 are leap years.
Is there a 4,000-year rule?
It has been suggested by the astronomer John Herschel and others that a better
approximation to the length of the tropical year would be 365.24225 days. This would
mean 969 leap years every 4,000 years, rather than the 970 leap years mandated by
the Gregorian calendar. This could be achieved by dropping one leap year from the
Gregorian calendar every 4,000 years. This rule, however, has not been officially
How did countries shift to the Gregorian calendar?
Pope Gregory XIII decreed that 10 days should be dropped from October 1582 so that
October 15, 1582, should follow immediately after October 4 of that year. Most catholic
countries, including Spain, Portugal and most of Italy, soon adopted it. But Protestants
were a bit reluctant. The British Empire and Sweden adopted it in 1752 and 1753
respectively. Russia, however, remained on the Julian calendar until 1917, after the
Russian Revolution (which is thus called the “October Revolution” though it occurred in
Gregorian November) and Greece continued to use it until 1923.
What are the other calendars?
Most Muslims use the Hijri calendar to determine the proper Islamic holy days. It is a
lunar calendar with 354 days and hence a year is about 11 days shorter than the solar
year. As a result, Islamic holy days, although celebrated on fixed dates in their own
calendar, usually shift 11 days earlier in the Gregorian year. Similarly, the Saka
calendar, which is a luni solar calendar, is the official calendar of India. Together with the
Gregorian calendar, it’s used in The Gazette of India and communications issued by the
government. Its year zero starts in the year 78 of the Christian era. To determine leap
years, add 78 to the Saka year — if the result is a leap year in the Gregorian calendar,
then the Saka year is also a leap year. The Persian calendar is used in Iran and
Afghanistan. The Chinese, Hebrew and Hindu calendars are widely used for religious
and/or social purposes. The Ethiopian calendar or Ethiopic calendar is the principal
calendar used in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Even today, most Orthodox churches except the
Finnish Orthodox Church continue to celebrate Easter according to the Julian calendar.
The recently released Hollywood movie 2012 depicting catastrophic events in 2012 was
based on the belief of apocalypse in December 2012 which is said to be the end date of
the 5,000-year old Mayan Long Count calendar.