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
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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