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Days and Dates

by Dear Jon
April 23, 2002

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Sort 134_Dear Jon-Days and Dates ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

My cat smells funny. What should I do?

Cat Owner


Dear Owner,

First of all, be sure it is a cat. If it looks like a black cat but it has a white stripe on its back and a bushy tail, you do not have a cat. One remedy, in that case, is to blend the stripe out with some dye. Once you have made sure that you have a real cat, give the cat a bath. I’m sure it will love the experience. Or you can consult a veterinarian. Veterinarians are just like real doctors: if you have one for a friend they don’t mind giving you free advice. That has always been my assumption, anyway.


ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

How come Christmas is always celebrated on Dec. 25, but Easter falls on a different Sunday every year?

Confused by Calendars


Dear Cal,

This is a very complicated question, involving religion, astro-physics, and cultural anthropology. So you have asked the right person.

The story of Christmas goes like this: Along about five b.c., an angel from Heaven appears to a girl named Mary and says, “Blessed are you among women. You are about to become an unwed teenaged mother.”

The problem is, no one told the angel or Mary or Jesus that it was only five b.c. Jesus was born in 4 b.c., which is four years premature. But at least we all agree he was born on December 25, because they had Julian calendars back then. Not that the calendars said “December 25, 4 bc.” I mean, it would be ridiculous to assume that there was a calendar hanging up in the stable in Bethlehem. Besides, he was probably born in March, which is when the Christians in the early centuries celebrated Christmas.

But that did not work because that made Christmas (March 25) and New Year’s (April 1) too close to Easter, which in a lot of religious ways makes perfect sense bit it did not make the department stores happy at all. So around the year 600 or so, the Church, which was by then the only functioning institution in western Europe with any semblance of literacy, decided to accomodate the culture by matching up the pagan holidays with the Christian celebrations. Christmas was moved into the dead of winter, at the approximate time of the solstice festival. The new year, what with “Spring” and “New life” and the equinox all figuring in, still began on April 1. Many centuries later the new year was pushed to January 1. Traditionalists who continued to celebrate the new year on April 1 were called “April’s fools.”

Easter, on the other hand, is tied to lunar rather than solar events. While it also accomodates a pagan fertility holiday, the religious context is connected with the “Passover” celebration of the Jewish people. The reason both pagans and Jews tied these particular celebrations to lunar events is that, in those days, life was dreary and short and had few needless complications that people could fight over. Mixing solar and lunar calendars gave everyone the welcome distraction of argument before dropping dead of physical exhaustion at the ripe old age of 43. This argument is behind just one of several important disputes that led to the Greek-speaking church and the Latin-speaking church breaking up. The eastern “Orthodox” churches will be celebrating Easter this year on May 5.

For people today, we have lots of things to argue about, which is why we live so much longer. We argue about sports, politics, and the Palestinians. Even so, fighting over calendars is still a valuable part of our heritage, as the argument over the beginning of the millennium attests.

Personally, I think it would be helpful if every important celebration was celebrated the way Easter was celebrated. For example, suppose I was married on, to pick a date at random, say, May 8, and I have an anniversary in only a couple weeks. May 8 happens to fall on a Wednesday this year, which is a completely boring time to have a wedding anniversary or a birthday. If, instead, we dated our anniversary to “the Saturday closest to two weeks after the New Moon,” then my wife could accuse me of forgetting our anniversary, and then I could argue that she is a whole month early. Then I could take the month to plan something special.

The best system is the system worked out for celebrating Thanksgiving and George Washington’s Birthday, and also the birthday of Queen Victoria if you are in Canada. In this system, the day is always the same even though the date changes. I think that is the least confusing, personally. My wife and I could say, “Every second Saturday in May is our wedding anniversary.” Then we would always have an anniversary on a fun day where we could do stuff together.

But women will never go for this. They will say, “Sure, every second or third Saturday of the month we were married can be our time together, but unless I see SOMETHING that shows you remember on the ACTUAL DATE, you will be sleeping on the couch.” So then you end up having to do everything twice, once on the ACTUAL DATE, and once on the week-end closest, which is very expensive and inefficient even though, since you are a man, you must NEVER admit you think so.

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