Is It Really the Millennium or What?

by Clark Humphrey

Some nitpickers insist the new millennium won't start until the year 2001.

Their justification: There was no Year Zero (despite a '50s science fiction film, "Panic in the Year Zero"). So a decade, century, or millennium doesn't really start with a "zero" year but a "one" year.

But these well-meaning attempts at precision ignore the fact that calendar-making has always been a less than precise art.

As University of Florida computer-network administrator Thomas Hintz writes, "The calendar is a man-made device. It is an artificial method for defining the passage of time."

Most civilizations have tried to divide time according to the cycles of the sun and moon, to the best of their ability to do so. But the names of these divisions, and their start and end points, are a matter of human creativity.

The Western World runs on the Gregorian Calendar, established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and based largely on the suggestions of Naples physician Aloysius Lilius and Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius. Gregory wanted a more accurate calendar than the Julian system, which had been Europe's standard since the days of ancient Rome. It was Lilius who came up with the concept of leap years, to make up for the fact that the solar year takes a little longer than 365 exact days. He also erased eleven days, to make up for past slippage. The first day of the Gregorian Calendar, October 15, 1582, directly followed October 4, 1582 under the Julian Calendar.

Some European countries (particularly Catholic countries) adopted the Gregorian Calendar right away; others took a while. Great Britain and its colonies didn't adopt it until 1752. That's why George Washington was born on a February 11, but his birthday was celebrated with a holiday on February 22, until it was morphed into the always-on-a-Monday Presidents' Day. (Some other nations didn't fully go Gregorian until the 1920s.)

If that's not confusing enough, the Gregorian Calendar was back-dated to start with what religious scholars at the time believed to have been the year Jesus Christ was born. But even that's become a matter of latter-day disputes. Some historians now believe Jesus could have been born anywhere from two years before to five years after the now-official Year 1.

So, since year-numbering is so arbitrary, go ahead and celebrate the millennium on 1/1/2000. Then next year, you can join the nitpickers and celebrate the millennium all over again.

Clark Humphrey's is contributing writer to Everything2000. His pop-culture report is now daily at WWW.MISCMEDIA.COM.

DATE: 09/08/99

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