Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Lunar New Year

Monday the 26th January is a very important day for some. For those whose year is governed by the lunar calendar, rather than solar ("Western") calendar, it's time to celebrate New Year. It's also pretty important for moonwalkers, because it means they can write a blog entry.

The Chinese are the most famous people to follow the lunar year, and will be the most celebrated of celebrators on the 26th January. The majority of the Western world follows the Gregorian solar calendar, which runs from 1st January to 31st December every year. It's Earth's orbit of the sun that's important to the solar calendar, with 365.25 days making a year (observed as 365 days for three years, 366 days - a leap year - as the fourth).

But what about the moon?

A lunar month, as you've probably guessed, relies on our other great timekeeper, the moon. The twelve 29.53-day synodic months (new moon to new moon) add up to a 354-day year. The first new moon of the year - or, to be more accurate, first in the new synodic cycle - heralds a new lunar year. Like today.

But the solar year is 365 days. And there's only one Earth. So things get a little complicated. The 11-day 'drift' has caused a lot of the world to come in line with the solar calendar. It's like a single currency - you either join it and adapt, or stay away and find your own system. (And then bemoan the weakening pound.) And that's what the rest of the world's communities have done: devised their own ways.

The lunisolar year

The 11-day difference can't be ignored (in all but one case, which I'll come to.) If the Chinese are to share financial markets with London and New York, and the English and Americans to buy goods from China, there needs to be a common ground. And as often happens, it's the Western world - the solar world - that retains the standard. Although China will today celebrate its new year, it will have already been living in 2009 for 25 days. Its year - like that of many of its Eastern neighbours - is a combination of lunar and solar.

Every three years the lunar calendar is about a month different to its solar sibling - roughly 33 days. So Chinese farmers decided to add a 'leap' month every third year to catch up. Like a leap day tidying the solar year, a leap month tidies the lunisolar one. The fractions of days means there's still drifting, but both camps, the sun and moon, can at least agree that today is the 26/01/09.

Or 01/01/4706?

An exception

Time and religion are intrinsically linked. Think before Christ (BC), anno Domini (AD), Lent, Advent, Easter and the vernal equinox, Ramadan and the ninth month, Diwali and the Vikrami New Year, Judaism's 3761BC year of Creation. And think the Islamic Hirji calendar - an example of a purely lunar time system. One they never syncronised with the sun. One that drifts like a nomad. One that takes 33 lunar years to line up again with its solar counterpart.

Those who use the Hirji calendar are, by my reckoning, 363 days behind the rest of us and may have missed a lot in the last 33 years. But they'll live a bit longer. A solar year to be exact. It's like when someone's born on a leap day and they never grow older. Like Peter Pan.

Happy New Year!

The Chinese Lunar New Year dates from 2600BC. A chap called Emperor Huang Ti (pronounced 'Emperor Huang Ti') introduced the first zodiacal cycle and soon the calendar was taking on a life of its own - animal life. The story goes that Lord Buddha summoned all the world's animals to him before he left Earth for enlightenment. Only twelve turned up so he named a year after each as reward. I bet he was gutted when the rat scuttled up from the sewer and earned itself a year. Guess it would've been discriminatory to say 'Sorry, no rats' having publicised the event. And without Ratty I may have been born in the year of the mongoose. Or worse.

2009 is the Year of the Ox. "This is the animal that hides in your heart."

Happy Lunar New Year.

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