When the ball dropped in Times Square this year, you didn’t see 3…2…1 Happy New Year 5770 or 4343. You saw what much of the world expected to see; Happy New Year 2010. However, not everyone agrees on that number as calendars are human creations that often reflect events that are relevant to a specific group, rather than adhering to any universally accepted scientific phenomenon or some other objective criteria. So what year is it really?
Well, that depends on where you’re from and who you ask. First, we must examine some of the concepts of time that are held by different cultures. Not everyone perceives the passage of time as a one-way march with a distinct beginning and end. Some cultures view time as cyclical and repetitive; allowing long periods of time to come to a close and make way for new beginnings instead of ticking away in a linear fashion, growing ever larger as time goes by.
For instance, the Chinese calendar, from which the calendars of many Asian countries are derived, is based on a variety of criteria including lunar phases, solar declination, and astrological/zodiacal events. Furthermore, the Chinese calendar has not traditionally included an ongoing ordinal count beginning with a specific day in history; rather it employs a sexagenary stem-branch system that produces 60 different years in a cycle before starting anew, thus creating a cyclical system which provides us with designations like Year of the Earth Ox (2009) or Year of the Metal Tiger (2010). For the most part, modern China has adopted the Gregorian calendar that is widely used in the Western World, but in the past, the numerical value of a year was based on its position within an era, which was commonly a dynastic period. So you might end up with something like the tenth year of insert emperor/dynasty name here, in addition to the elemental and zodiacal stem-branch nomenclature.
It is this same cyclical perspective that is pervasive in the Mesoamerican calendar, and its ever-so-popular progeny the Mayan calendar, which is whipping the world into a frenzy in preparation for the coming of 2012. The Mayan calendar, like its Chinese counterpart, employs multiple layers of data which culminate in a complex matrix of information about both cultural historical events as well as astronomical events. Additionally, the calendar is intended to “run its course” and begin again in a new age. So fear not, the “end” of the Mayan calendar only signifies the end of this era, after which, a new era will begin.
The calendar most of the western world uses is the Gregorian calendar. Introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar with the division of months coinciding loosely with the phases of the Moon, but the dates for New Year coinciding with the solar year. For the purpose of communication, especially in business transactions, much of the world has adopted the use of the Gregorian calendar; although many places, like China, still utilize their traditional calendars as well, to track special events unique to their society.
Examinations of the methodology for recording the passage of time brings to mind, what has essentially become an adage… time is relative. The units of measurement used to express time are, ultimately, man-made devices; even if they are based on empirically quantifiable and observable phenomenon. So when you go to wish your friends a happy new year, be prepared to concede that it may not actually be 2010. Happy New Year everyone.