For Many, New Year's Is Double Date Night
For Many, New Year's Is Double Date Night
By MARTIN MILLER, Times Staff Writer
As the clock ticks away the last
seconds of December 31, Shimel Erfanian is going to party like it's
156. Meanwhile, Maher Hathout is going to party like it's 1420 and Ron
Wolfson like it's 5760.
In other words, there isn't going to
be much of a party at all.
To these members of the Baha'i, Islamic
and Jewish faiths, respectively--and to more than a million other Southern
Californians who also live by two calendars--New Year's Eve 1999 will be
merely another Friday night.
"It's going to be a very regular evening,"
said Hathout, a spokesman for the Islamic Center for Southern California,
whose calendar begins with the prophet Mohammed's flight from Mecca to
Medina. "There's nothing supernatural or metaphysical about it. All the
celebrating, the popping of the champagne and dancing, we look at it as
a bit silly." Or a bit arbitrary.
This is even clearer from a global
standpoint, in which the calendar Tower of Babel rises ever higher.
Worldwide, there are at least 40 different calendars calculating time
in vastly different ways. They are based on everything from the sun to
the moon to the swarming of sea worms--a method employed by the Kodi
people of Sumba Island in eastern Indonesia.
"The Kodi people's highest ranking
official is a sort of Father Time figure," said Janet Hoskins, a USC
professor of anthropology, who wrote "The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives
on Calendars, History and Exchange" (1993, University of California
Press). "His main duty is to get the timing of the planting and harvesting
exactly right, which in an agricultural society like theirs is of
But for those who rely less upon sea
worms and more upon the Western, or Gregorian, calendar, there still
exist sharp differences in timekeeping--to the point that there is
serious question about precisely when the millennium bash should begin.
* * *
ranks include the Library of Congress and the National Institute of
Standards and Technology, among others, insist the party shouldn't start
until Jan. 1, 2001. But the masses, voting with hotel reservations and
party plans, say that when the cosmic tumblers hit Jan. 1, 2000, it's
time to go wild.
A review of history shows both sides
probably are wrong.
According to historians, Romulus--the
founder of Rome--invented the Roman Empire's calendar in what we today
would consider 750 BC. The crude calendar, however, had only 304 days
and 10 months (there was no January or February). It quickly was out-
of-sync with a true solar year: 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds.
By 46 BC, Julius Caesar apparently had
had enough and ordered a 365-day calendar with a leap year every four
years. No major alterations were undertaken until the 6th century when
Rome took another action that jeopardizes any New Year's Eve celebrant
interested in accuracy.
The church assigned the Julian Calendar
a new start date--the birth of Jesus. The year chosen was AD 1.
This move, made in large part because
of a Scythian monk whose name roughly translates to "Denny the Runt,"
posed some problems. First, most historians now agree that Jesus was born
somewhere between 7 and 3 BC. If true, that means we're already in the
Second, for all their aqueducts and
architecture, the Romans had no concept of zero--unlike Indian and Mayan
cultures. Since the first century began with AD 1, and not 0, the second
century did not start until AD 101.
While a vast improvement, the Julian
Calendar was still far from perfect. Three days were lost every 400 years
so, and by the 16th century, the spring equinox was 10 days later than
indicated on the calendar.
* * *
To correct this,
Pope Gregory XIII ordered one of the most astonishing disappearing acts
of all time, eliminating the days between Oct. 4 and Oct. 14, 1582. The
result was the Gregorian Calendar, but it is 26 seconds ahead of a solar
Thus, once again ignoring the other
complications, the new year will be three hours old by the time the ball
drops in Times Square.
Of course, these fine points in calendar
evolution are lost upon most of us.
But many realize through their cultural
or religious clashes with the Gregorian Calendar that time, and its
meaning, are what we make of them.
"To us, the new millennium has no real
significance," said Erfanian, whose Baha'i faith begins its calendar in
1844, when the religion was founded by the Bab. "But we realize it may
for other people."
For Wolfson, whose Jewish calendar
started with God's creation of the Earth, Dec. 31 will be slightly more
significant--as a Friday, it's the beginning of Sabbath.
"The challenge for a lot of synagogues
will be to encourage their congregants to celebrate that Friday night
spiritually rather than in some other form," said Wolfson, a vice president
at the University of Judaism. "But if the hoopla around the millennium
makes us pause about the significance of time, how quickly it flies, and
its value and sacredness, then it might possibly serve a useful purpose."