Calendar Reform

(This column was first published in the January 1, 2001 Buffalo News.)

    As we enter the 21st century (again), it is reasonable to examine some of the proposals for reform of the calendar under which we have been scheduling ourselves for almost 250 years. (Catholic countries changed 150 years still earlier and the United States had to make an eleven-day adjustment to correct the accumulated error. Among other things the shorter month that resulted created serious problems between landlords and tenants.)

    Critics note two major problems with our Gregorian Calendar: the same date occurs on different weekdays from year to year, and the month lengths vary almost at random from 28 to 31 days. Consider three proposals to address these issues.

    The International Fixed Calendar (first offered in 1834 and later supported by Kodak-founder George Eastman of Rochester) makes all current months have 28 days with the 1st of each month falling on Sunday. Another month, Sol, is inserted between June and July. The 365th day is New Year's Eve and is not assigned a weekday name. On Leap Year another of these non-designated days is inserted at the end of June. This calendar makes the months have an equal number of days and weeks, providing statistical advantages and making salary periods correspond exactly. However, the 13th month creates disadvantages too. Among them it eliminates the possibility of designating quarter-years by months.

    Several calendar reform proposals were combined to produce in 1930 a so-called World Calendar. A wealthy New York City heiress, Elisabeth Achelis, who came to be known as the Calendar Lady, copyrighted this calendar and fought tirelessly for its adoption until she died in 1973. It retains our 12 months, but divides them equally into quarter-years by assigning in each quarter 31-30-30 day months. (Thus January has 31 days, February and March 30, etc.) Each quarter has 91 days or exactly 13 weeks and the quarters begin on a Sunday and end on a Saturday. The necessary extra days are handled as in the International Fixed Calendar. In this calendar, however, they are designated World Days.

    Ms. Achelis took her proposal to the League of Nations and later the United Nations as well as both houses of our own congress. Many countries supported her proposals -- but not ours. Although the World Calendar addresses all the problems of the International Fixed Calendar, it was met by religious opposition. Those extra days of both calendars "change the Sabbath" and present an insurmountable obstacle to conservative faiths. The Chief Rabbi of England led the campaign against the World Calendar in 1931 and the Second Vatican Council did so in 1963.

    A final proposal addresses this issue. It retains the seven-day week and thus the Sabbath. This calendar would eliminate Leap Year days and substitute for them Leap Year weeks. The arithmetic for this change is straightforward. In each 400 year cycle of our current calendar there are 400 x 365 + 97 days, the 97 added for Leap Years. These 146,097 days are also equal to 400 x 364 + 497 and that 497 = 7 x 71. By this arithmetic each year of this calendar has 364 days or 52 weeks, with Leap Year weeks inserted every fifth or sixth year.

    But as Edward Cohen, from whom I have drawn much of this content,* says, "It's unlikely that we'll see worldwide calendar reform anytime soon. Change of something so fundamental requires a strong leader...(like a first-century BCE Roman emperor or a Renaissance pope). Besides,... there can never exist a perfect calendar. The length of the solar year is not constant."

    So the doggerel that begins "30 days hath September..." remains appropriate.-- Gerry Rising


* His excellent survey with many references to additional sources appears in the student journal,Math Horizons, for February 2000.