Numinations — January, 1999


© 1999, by Gary D. Campbell

Let’s Numinate about next New Year’s Eve. Virtually everyone will celebrate the new millenium when all those zeros are about to roll into view. That is, on the 31st of December, 1999. There may be a few purists who will celebrate the new millenium a whole year later, and I will briefly recite their argument for this. However, there are good and substantial arguments for properly celebrating at the end of this year.

The current numbering of years, the one that gives this year as the year 1999, began with a year numbered one. To celebrate the ending of a full two thousand years, we have to complete the year 2000. At the end of the current year, we have completed only 1999 years – not quite a full millenium. At least, this is the way the reasoning goes. The root of the problem was in calling that first year the “year one.”

Did you ever notice that this is the 20th century, but all its years begin with 19xx? This is because measuring, unlike counting, begins at zero. The confusion sets in when we pair the cardinal numbers (one, two, three) with the ordinal numbers (first, second, third).

Measurement of something continuous, like the measurement of time in years, starts at zero and only gets to one when a full year has gone by. Just as the first century had a zero in the hundreds place and the first millenium a zero in the thousands place, during the first year, the “year number” should have been “zero point something.” The ordinal number “one” (or first) should have been paired with the cardinal number “zero.” Thus, the mistake is 2000 years in the past. We can fix it simply by thinking of the year before 1 CE as 0 CE. With that year added to the count, the current year is the 2000th. And, just like when the number 2000 first rolls into view on our car’s odometer, marking the completion of 2000 miles, the end of our current year will mark the end of the second millenium and the beginning of the third.

Why celebrate new years, centuries, and millennia any differently than we celebrate our own birthdays? We celebrate the big 40, the big 50, and so forth. It’s the appearance of those zeros that’s significant. Your age isn’t one until you’ve had your first birthday. Your 10th birthday marks a full decade. Likewise, the first instant of the year 2000 should mark two full millennia.

The year One was supposedly the year in which Christ was born. Now, if his birthday is the 25th of December, isn’t that rather close to the new year anyway? There is no reason to assume that the year was fixed correctly in the first place, and then one week later came a new year. Was that first week in year 0 or 1? Should the first full year be numbered 1 or 2? There’s no way to tell at this point, two thousand years later, too much is clouded by the mists of time.

The Julian calendar, which was the one in use at the time, was still in the “experimental” stage then, anyway. That calendar was instituted by the decree of Julius Caesar, about two years before he died (in 44 BCE). It was the first calendar that specified a 365 day year with a leap year every four years (inserted between the 23rd and 24th of February). The first mistake with this new calendar was finally detected in 8 BCE, when the Emperor Augustus had to cancel three leap days. And in the year 4 CE, the Julian calendar was finally synchronized with time as we know it.

However, it drifted out of synch over the years, because it had an annual error of 11 minutes and 14 seconds. On the 24th of February, 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that the day after October 4, 1582 would be October 15, 1582. He further decreed that centennial years would be leap years only if divisible by 400. Note that the definition of a centennial year is one that ends with at least two zeros. Already, we have significance attached to years ending in zeros!

This Gregorian, or “New Style,” calendar was recognized almost immediately by countries of the Catholic persuasion. Protestant Germany adopted it in 1700, Britain in 1752, and Sweden in 1753. Greek Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe adopted it in 1912-1917, the USSR adopted it in 1918, and Greece didn’t adopt it until 1923.

In any case, you can see how much of this is completely arbitrary. Now that we use the letters CE and BCE, instead of BC and AD, to denote a separation of “eras” instead of the birth of Christ, this arbitrary numbering may slowly gain acceptance by other religions as well. This new terminology has evolved in the past twenty years as evidenced by dictionaries and encyclopedias from my own shelves. My 1975 Webster’s doesn’t list CE and BCE. My 1993 Britannica refers you to an article on Judaism in which the definition of “Common Era” is embedded. But, my 1993 Random House Dictionary refers you to “Christian Era” for the definition of “Common Era.”

So, here we sit at one end of a 2000 year yardstick (yearstick?) whose other end is pretty much clouded by the mists of time. Why not simply say that the other end begins at zero? We really can’t distinguish otherwise. So what if the year 1 BCE was the year just before the year 1 CE? Measurement demands a zero point. Ordinality demands that we complete a year, or move one year away from that zero point, before we get to the number one. So, the year 1 BCE is simply a synonym for the year 0 CE. Now, it’s done. Instead of waiting another year for the millenium, our counting will simply start (properly) one year sooner at the other end of the “yearstick.”

Let’s celebrate the millenium the way we’d celebrate our own decade or century mark – when the zeros roll over. And, rest assured without a doubt, your position is completely defensible. After all, you’ve given thorough Numination to this whole matter.

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