Thursday, September 23, 2010

Bonne Année 219

Bored at work yesterday (and not ashamed to admit to it on my blog, because I will be starting a new job on Monday), I began Wikipedia page-hopping. Because I am reading Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which takes place around the Revolution of 1848, I started on that page, and ended up learning about all kinds of French historical events from 1789 to 1871 (very turbulent years for la belle France). The most fascinating page I discovered explained the French Republican Calendar, a wacky overhaul of the calendar and time-keeping system, which was instituted a few years after the 1789 revolution. Months had new, seasonally appropriate names, and three weeks of 10 days each. Each day had 10 hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and each minute had 100 seconds. Each day no longer commemorated a saint, but instead some important plant, domesticated animal, or farm tool!

I think it's completely nuts to pass a law re-defining what a "week" and an "hour" and a "minute" is, yet some aspects of the Republican Calendar are very appealing. I like the idea of naming each month after the quality of its weather (though, as Wikipedia points out, the calendar was based on typical Parisian weather, and it would be rather chauvinistic to import it to other parts of the world). Indeed, when I was younger, I created a fantasy world with its own language, and the months were named after nature and weather: e.g. March was U'eyvth, meaning Melt-month, and July was Opuivth, meaning Fruit-month. (I hadn't heard of the French Republican Calendar at the time, though--I was probably inspired by the Native American names for full moons: Flower Moon, Strawberry Moon, and the like.) Also, there is something so charmingly French--so appropriate for the land that invented the idea of terroir--to name days after the nation's favorite plants and foodstuffs!

Moreover, because the first day of the French Republican year takes place on the autumn equinox, and I was reading this Wikipedia page on September 22, it was actually the first day of Année Republicaine 219! Bonne année, mes amis!

Learning about this calendar system also caused me to wonder why different cultures celebrate their New Year at different times of the year, and how this might have arisen in each civilization. The French Republican year begins on the autumn equinox; the Jewish New Year is also in early autumn. The modern Gregorian calendar celebrates the New Year on January 1, ten or so days after the winter solstice, but in medieval England (which used the Julian calendar), the New Year began near the spring equinox, March 25. The Chinese New Year is sometime between the winter solstice and spring equinox--late January or early February. Interestingly, I can't think of any calendar whose New Year occurs around the summer solstice. All of this must have to do with the agricultural patterns in each of these civilizations, and other societal values... but still, it's curious.


Dr.J said...

Interesting topic. The ambition of French revolutionaries to disengage religion from everyday living was a sign of their trend towards absolutism and terror, (but of course you Americans may find he FR a friend with Lafayette and all that folk).
You know the anecdote about Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare dying the same day in 1616, but it was not the same day because the calendars were different! If you read Samuel Pepys Diaries, there is one "empty" year when they adjusted dates with the "Continent"
April 23rd has remained, at least in Spain "the Book Day" and the Cervantes Prize is awarded to a spanish-language writer

Marissa said...

Ha! I didn't realize that the different calendars mean that Shakespeare and Cervantes didn't actually die on the same day.

You may appreciate this, if you didn't know it already: the American presidents/statesmen John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826--exactly 50 years after they signed the Declaration of Independence. Crazy, huh?

Speaking of Adams and Jefferson, I love how they prove that a republic can separate church and state, without the absolutism and terror of the French Revolution. Because Americans are used to religion being separate from public life, we may applaud the French revolutionaries more than we really should...