Sunday, January 08, 2012

Ethics of Calendar Technology

With the turn of this new year, most people have at least heard about the Mayan calendar sequence ending that allegedly forecasts dire disasters to come on or about December 21, 2012. The Wikipedia article “Mayan calendar” has a quotation from Sandra Noble, who is an expert on ancient Mayan customs and practices. She says that contrary to a lot of the hype that has been promoted about the event, all that it really means is that a “long-count” period of one “b’ak’tun”, lasting 394.3 years, is going to end on that day. Far from prognosticating disaster, the ancient Mayans usually had a huge celebration, a kind of super-New-Year’s-Eve party, whenever they reached the end of a b’ak’tun. She says that the notion of a cycle end as a doomsday date is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.” To the extent that calendars are a type of technology, such misrepresentation is a kind of violation of calendar ethics—if there is such a thing. As far as I’m concerned, there is now.

Just like the technology of clocks helps us to regulate and coordinate the way we use short intervals of time during the day, the technology of calendars allows us to plan and coordinate longer intervals involving days, weeks and years. That is why nearly every civilization worthy of the name has come up with some kind of calendar. Although the traditional seven-day week dates back at least to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews around 600 B. C., there are many other lengths of weeks used in other calendars, ranging from the three-day weeks of an early Basque calendar to the 13-day weeks used by the Mayans. In most ancient civilizations, the calendar was used to establish times for religious festivals as well as more practical issues such as the planting of crops. Because religion was a kind of all-pervasive thing to ancient peoples, the calendar was an intrinsic part of their culture, and anyone with the temerity to change it was in effect challenging the foundation of a way of life.

This tie to tradition was an aspect of the calendar appreciated by the French revolutionaries, who in 1793 threw out the Gregorian calendar with its religious associations and replaced it with a novel arrangement of three ten-day weeks in each 30-day month, enamored as they were with the decimal system. (We owe the metric system largely to this same regularizing spirit, which found its proper place in scientific measurements.) The revolutionary French calendar lasted for about a dozen years before the confusion caused by interconverting between the French days and weeks and the traditional ones used by everybody else got to be too much, and they changed it back. A similar stunt was tried by the leaders of the ten-year-old Soviet Union, who foisted a calendar consisting of 72 five-day weeks onto their reluctant citizens in 1929. This attempt failed after only two years, when a six-day week was tried, but led to further confusion and too many holidays. Finally, the whole thing was dropped in 1940 and the Gregorian calendar was quietly resumed.

Since then, there have been no major attempts to fiddle with what many people regard as a God-given system of accounting for days. In Christianity’s early years, believers adopted Sunday, the first day of the Roman week, as their new Sabbath, partly to distinguish themselves from the Jews, who observed their Sabbath beginning Friday night and going to Saturday at sundown. Making Sunday the first day of the week has been a nearly universal practice of calendar-makers until the last few years, when I began to notice European calendars that put Monday as the first day of the week, demoting Sunday to the last day.

I don’t know why, exactly, but this change annoyed me exceedingly. I suppose it was as a Christian, I resented the implied insult to Sunday, which Christians regard as a day set aside by the Lord for rest and avoidance of routine labor. Far from being just another part of the weekend (or something brought to us by labor unions, “the folks that brought you the weekend” as one bumper sticker says), Sunday is supposed to be the day when you stop to realize that what you have depends not only on your own efforts, but is really the gift of God, Who set aside the sabbath because He rested on the seventh day after making the world on the first six days. If God decides to rest after His labors, the least we can do is imitate Him in that regard. That is why Sunday used to be printed in red and lead the week, because it was special, even holy (which just means “set aside for a special purpose”). Holidays were originally holy-days, that is, religious festivals.

So all these traditional religious associations go by the board when you pick up a calendar with Monday as the first day, as I unwittingly did the day I went Christmas shopping for my wife at Half Price Books. I bought it because it had pictures of Volkswagen Beetles. A Beetle was our first car, and my wife has ever since had an unreasonable admiration for those machines. Because the calendar was sealed, I was unable to tell how the weeks were arranged. Imagine my horror (okay, displeasure is closer to it) when she opened it up, hung it on the wall, and I discovered that it was laid out in the European style of Monday first, Sunday last. I fussed about it till she offered to print up little strips of Sundays, one per month, tape them to the left sides of each sheet, and cover up the blasphemous tail-end-of-the week Sundays. I admitted this would be silly and said for her not to do it, but that calendar is going to annoy me for the whole coming year, I can tell.

By such subtle means are cultural shifts manipulated, or at least indicated. I have no idea why European calendar makers demoted Sunday, unless their customers demanded it by saying that Monday is when their weeks begin, and why not put it first? But in that demand itself is expressed the increasing secularization we hear about Europe all the time. And now it’s spreading to the U. S., at least in the form of specialty calendars. I fully expect nothing particularly bad to happen on Dec. 21 of this year, Mayans or no Mayans. But when it comes to the trend symbolized by moving Sunday to the last day of the week, I think the results are becoming plainer every week—and every year.

Sources: I referred to the Wikipedia articles on “week,” “French Republican calendar,” “Calendar,” and “Mayan calendar,” where the quotation from Sandra Noble appears.

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