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Home | 2016 | January

Lunatic calendars

Posted by Mad Mitch on UTC 2016-01-17 13:01.

OK for Arabia Deserta, everywhere else not so much

If you are a camel herder somewhere in Saudi Arabia it makes perfect sense to have a calendar year that consists of twelve lunar months.

You don't need to bother counting a standard number of days in each month, that would be too challenging: men have only ten fingers per hand and camels (infamously) only two toes per foot. One hand and one camel's foot get you to twelve, no problem.

One month ends and the next month starts from the moment you can see the first crescent of the new moon – or is that the last crescent of the old moon? Dearie me, I forget.

This kind of thing is easy for camel herders in the middle of the Arabian desert. There's hardly ever any cloud. If you are not so fortunate to have permanently clear skies or to live somewhere else in the world the method of observing the crescent becomes a tad problematic.

However, by being so strictly lunar, the length of the same month can vary, sometimes having twenty-nine days, sometimes thirty.

The astronomical year is longer than the twelve camel-herder months by about ten days. This means that those twelve months wander backwards around the astronomical year, taking about 33 years to get back to where they started.

If you live, like our camel herder, in a country largely without seasons (hot–very hot–appallingly hot–very hot, and so on) this rotation around the astronomical year is only a slight irritation. If you live anywhere else in the world, with seasons a feature of an astronomical year, you are in trouble.

Arctic Ramadan

The fasting month of Ramadan regresses through the year, drifting backwards through the seasons. Whereas for the inhabitants of equatorial deserts the differences in the length of day throughout the year are small, the higher the latitude the greater the changes in length of day until finally, above the polar circles, we meet the phenomenon of the summer midnight sun and its opposite the winter permanent night.

In northern latitudes, when Ramadan falls in summer, the dawn-dusk hunger gap is exceptionally long and the digesting gap between dusk and dawn exceptionally short. In winter, the opposite is the case. Muslims living on or above the Arctic Circle will have to starve for a month in summer or not fast at all in winter.

Occasional attempts to add some days to bring the Muslim calendar (which is what we are describing) into line with the astronomical year have foundered on religious dogma: that is, that's the way Mohammed said it should be in AD 632 (Julian) and that's good enough for me. The horizon of the time was the wide desert and the clear sky; no one knew of temperate countries, of countries close to or above the Arctic Circle; of antipodean countries. This calendar works – sort of – in the Middle East: but only there.

Because the Muslim calendar in its dogmatic form is essentially a lunatic construction for anyone other than our camel herder, some Muslim areas of the world are trying to impose a bit of sense by standardising something or other. But the basic lunacy remains.


The followers of that higher latitude religion, Christianity, have never got it into their heads to have a lunar calendar, being too dominated by the seasons of the astronomical year. There is, however, the relic of the 'moveable feasts' based around the date of the Easter resurrection. I suspect this mumbo-jumbo makes this important Easter festival a bit more magical.

The date of the Easter resurrection and the moveable feasts that are derived from it is calculated by plugging a bit of lunar calendar into an astronomical calendar, in defiance of all logic. To get the date for Easter Sunday in the Anglican Church you take the [astronomical] spring equinox, work out the date of the first full moon thereafter [lunar], go to the first Sunday after that [astronomical], which gives you Easter Sunday. Theoretically, this date can be between 22 March and 25 April. You can then calculate all the other moveable feasts that depend on the date of Easter, giving you Ash Wednesday and the forty days and nights of Lent.

We are told that the Christian churches are making a concerted effort to make the date of Easter and these moveable feasts immobile in the astronomical Gregorian calendar.

Easter does not mark the calendar anniversary of the Crucifixion, but is just a memorial of the same – no one should believe that Jesus arose from the dead on 27 March in year 30(?), just because Easter Sunday is 27 March in 2016. Since the date is effectively a fiction based on an absurd calculation, there is no reason that Easter Sunday cannot be fixed at some reasonable date, bringing the Christian churches finally into the world of sane calendars.

It has taken Christians two thousand years, but if they manage it they can be said to have arrived, if only in terms of their calendar, in the twenty-first century. Let's see how long it takes the other lot.