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14. Is a Calendar and Time Reform Overdue?
John Austin
Suggestion for a fixed calendar

Amongst calls for a fixed date for Easter, is it not time to overhaul our calendar at the same time? Image Credit: Calendar proposed by E. Achelis, 1930.

With Easter fast approaching, people worldwide are left scurrying around to find when Easter actually is this year. A fixed date for Easter every year would resolve this annual dilemma. Is it not time to reform our calendar at the same time? There have also been recent proposals to use the same time globally, scrapping the current system of time zones around the Earth. But how practical is this?

Our Current Calendar

We currently use the Gregorian calendar, designed by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. For its time it was a significant achievement as it superceded the prior Julian calendar which was slightly inaccurate. In particular, the rules for leap years ensures that the average length of the year comes to 365.2425 days which means that after 1000 years, the Gregorian calendar has drifted from astronomical time, measured by the fixed stars, by just 0.5 days[1]. However, as we know it is a confused calendar still based on the whims of various Roman generals from 2000 years ago. This resulted in different months having different lengths, mostly 30 or 31 plus the exceptional February. We all initially have to learn a "nursery rhyme" to remember how many days are in each month.

In the middle ages, many Pagan beliefs celebrated the winter solstice[2] while christianity celebrated the birth of Christ. Both dates were set around 25 December. The resurrection was tied to the phase of the moon to fit in with christian mythology, and that has remained to this day. Unfortunately, the moon does not have a whole number of orbits around the Earth during the calendar year and so the phases of the moon drift over the years and any event tied to the moon drifts as well. Consequently we have had to endure a variable date for Easter.

The Call for a Fixed Date for Easter

Pope Francis is understood to be open to the idea of a fixed date for Easter. Photograph: AFP/Getty.

Easter affects us all, whether we are believers or not. Although for example Britain is a largely secular society many things revolve around the traditional christian dates of celebration and I have no problem with that. For example, 25 and 26 December are public holidays and for many people in work, the whole of the last week of the year can often be taken as a holiday. Britain still has several public holidays around Easter, so an extended holiday at this time of year used to be a regular occurrence for me. The problem, however, is that Easter falls on a different date each year. At this time of year one month either way in the date can make a huge effect on the weather and this changes the emphasis of the sort of holiday or other activity that can take place.

Commercially, a variable date for Easter is a problem because it affects people's buying activities and leisure activities, as noted above. In turn this affects the economy and all the economic statistics that seem so vital now to our politicians.

In view of many of these issues, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has now called for a fixed date for Easter[3]. Such a date might be fixed as the second or third Sunday of April and would be agreed hopefully within the next 10 years. The first Sunday would be avoided presumably in case this coincides with 1 April! Justin welby has been in discussions with other catholic leaders to try to bring this about. The date for Easter was set in 325 AD by the Roman emperor Constantine[4]. It is, I believe, a sad reflection on the backward-looking nature of religious doctrine that just changing the date of Easter is seen to be such a significant challenge. Nonetheless, those seeking a change must be commended for their openness. Changing the date for Easter could pave the way for wholesale changes to the calendar.

The World Calendar

The world calendar proposed by Elisabeth Achelis of New York in 1930 is one of many simplified calendars proposed. I like it, and have highlighted it before in my book "Measuring the World"[1]. It has numerous advantages including being identical from one year to the next, apart from the odd day inserted as needed on a leap year. Unlike the current calendar, the extra day in a leap is inserted at the end, which is a much more logical thing to do. The calendar has many advantages described elsewhere[5], so it is perhaps surprising that it hasn't been uniformly adopted.

There has been more agreement on time worldwide than on any other measurement[1]. Whereas most countries use the metric system for everything, a few countries remain in the dark ages including Britain in part and the USA. Nonetheless, even the USA uses the same time system as the rest of the world, a system based on the second. It is just a great pity that the calendar remains antiquated. Once again it is mainly backward-looking religious objections that prevent progress. The problem with any calendar for our planet is that it doesn't admit regular cycles. So any faith that demands that its adherents regularly practice their activities has difficulties in a system that doesn't share that.

Calls for a Uniform Time

World time zone map

World time zone map produced by the US Central Intelligence agency published by Wikimedia commons.

Other reforms have been suggested in which we all use the same clock time[6]. Certainly there is only one time and the existence of time zones around the Earth can appear somewhat artificial. Much of science is based on "Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)", which is basically the modern version of "Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)", with precise corrections associated with leap seconds and so on[1]. Also, with internet connections worldwide, the idea of explicit business hours has become somewhat malleable.

Consequently, the argument for a single time zone has been put forward by economist Steve Hanke and physicist Dick Henry. Whereas the globe is often divided into easy to manage one hour time zones, many countries have a mixture of time zones with fractional hours in some countries such as Russia, Nepal and India. In the end, those countries that already have fractional hour time differences with neighbouring countries are unlikely to want to change to a global system.

It is not clear to me what the benefits of a uniform time would be. Certainly, I could see that cleaning up the time zones so that there are only 24 around the Earth would be beneficial. Apart from that I believe that changing to a uniform clock time would actually be counterproductive and introduce confusion. At the moment, if you make a journey by aeroplane across many time zones, you are told what time zone you are entering. You can then expect to fit in a "normal" day around those hours. In other words, if you get up at 6 am in your home time zone, then you get up at 6 am in your new time zone. Without explicit changes to the time zone, you don't really know what time to get up in the morning! In other words, the current system of time zones have been developed so that the sun is highest in the sky at local noon within an hour or so. By knowing the time zone of the area you are entering, you can fit in better with the local population. The proposers of a uniform time suggest that the advantage is that for example 7 am in London is 7 am in Los angeles. However, if you were in London and decided to phone your buddy at home in Los Angeles at 10 am you probably wouldn't be very popular! Knowledge of time zones is still necessary.

British Summer Time

The idea of a fixed time is actually anathema to our current tendency to change the clocks twice per year. The advantages of this in any case have always elluded me. It is difficult to find serious information except that geared at children[7]. It is a ritual introduced when lighting was expensive and the idea of changing the clocks was mainly to save power. The original study to support this is decades old and would not take into account the current mix of renewables in power generation or the transfer away from incandescent light bulbs. Nonetheless, without apparent question, we change our clocks by putting them forwards from GMT to British Summer Time sometime in the spring, and backwards sometime in the autumn. Why? I have no idea.

GMT is actually a bit inconvenient, so a better option would generally be to stay in BST all year round. This would fit better with our tendency perhaps to prefer lighter evenings and to have lunch near 1 pm rather than perhaps 12 pm and might fit in better with the rest of Europe. Of course this would mean that Scotland would be quite dark until relatively late in the morning, but more northerly countries suffer even more. It is perhaps a small price to pay bearing in mind the financial subsidies Scotland receives from the rest of the UK. In any case, if it is concerned about late mornings, Scotland can cancel the effect out by shifting its working day accordingly.

How Should we Reform our Clocks and Calendar?

Since everyone worldwide measures time with the same underlying unit, the opportunity is ripe for major reforms. Here are my suggestions:

  • Eliminate the twice yearly time change in our calendars.
  • Contiinue with time zones, as present, but with 24 covering the Earth without fractional hourse from UTC.
  • Abandon the current calendar for a simplified one such as the world calendar discussed here, or an equivalent.
  • Go over to fixed dates for holidays such as those based on religious dogma (Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving etc.).

While these changes would be great to see in my lifetime, sadly I think that the major obstacle is religious dogma which is backward-looking and doesn't embrace the future. At least the progress towards a fixed Easter date is a step in the right direction.


Article initially prepared 22 February 2016

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Website revised by John Austin, 22/2/2016. © Enigma Scientific Publishing, 2016.