blunt essays with sharp points


by Scrvpvlvs
Nov 15, 1999 5:33 PM–

Our Christian calendar was invented by Romans, and SCRVPVLVS was therefore expected to know something about it.

S. was lately asked about those cracked pots who insist the new millennium begins, not 01/01/00, but a year later, 01/01/01. As you might expect, S. is one of those cracked pots. The 2000th Year, 200th Decade, 20th Century, and 2nd Millennium A.D. all end at the same moment the night of December 24, 2000 or December 31, 2000 depending on whether you are in church or not.1 In other words, Arthur C. Clarke got it right.2

so what?

Amen. And yet, understanding your calendar is a sign of an educated citizen. If you would be embarrassed by a spelling or math error, being caught in this mistake should embarrass you too.

how our calendar measures time

When the Christianized Romans invented our calendar, they did so to honor Jesus, and so they dated everything from the moment they believed Jesus was born. Thus December 25th In the First Year of Our Master (Anno Domini Primus, or commonly 1 A.D.) became the First Day of the Christian calendar,3 and each December 25th thereafter is the Christian New Years Day. Outside the church, each new year begins a few days later, on January 1. This variation is known as the common calendar, and is the calendar most of us know today.4

To measure longer time-spans than one year, the Romans grouped years together by tens. A decade is ten years long; a century is ten decades long; a millennium is ten centuries long. We still use the Latin words for these time-spans, and we number them from 1 just as we do days, months and years. Each Century of Our Master lasts a hundred years, and each Millennium of Our Master lasts a thousand years, so our Centuries and Millennia convert to Years this way:

Century Years
1st 1-100 A.D.
2nd 101-200 A.D.
3rd 201-300 A.D.
Millennium Years
1st 1-1000 A.D.
2nd 1001-2000 A.D.
3rd 2001-3000 A.D.

Our way of counting from 1 is the reason why the 20th Century spans 1901-2000 A.D. A hundred years ago we knew this; newspapers heralded the 20th Century in headlines on January 1, 1901 A.D. The Pope knows it; he declared the last year of the Second Millennium a “year of jubilee” and scheduled it to begin December 25, 1999 (the Christian New Year).

why we are a year early

This time, odometers and digital clocks are everywhere. People pay attention when their odometers roll over, and when their “digital chronometers” read 11/11 11:11:11. 12/31/1999 is like that. We want to watch the digits all roll over on the Big Odometer Of Life.

Threats of computer glitches add apprehension to the moment. When a badly written computer program is confronted by a date like 01/01/00, it will take it to mean 01/01/1900. If that was to be a credit card expiration date, or the day to replace a nuclear reactor coolant valve, you might find it inconvenient. On 01/01/2000, a lot of these little glitches are expected to happen wherever they have not already been fixed by teams of frantic programmers. S. fully expects a few tragedies to occur in some third-world countries.

And what’s to stop some aggressor from taking advantage by attacking that day when the target may hesitate a little more than usual to rule out false alarms? A new friend observes that stories of impending doom are expected to inspire unusual levels of violence in partiers the night of December 31, 2000 A.D. S. remembers that Detroit rioted and burned cars for no more reason than winning the World Series of baseball. The end of 1999 may be a great spectator sport.

Modern media and marketing have moved early to foment millennimania and capitalize before we lose interest. What savvy Mad Avenue agency or ratings-hungry “educational” cable channel will not invoke Millennium 3 now while it’s trendy? Countdown to 2000 clocks are popular toys these days, and have “millennium” written all over them. Business ridicules the controversy over dates. Naturally! It has an image to protect. Scholarship must have no power over ads and hype, lest the Emperor’s Butt be exposed.

bottom line

No pun intended. If the utilities, banks and Internet still work on January 1, 2000 A.D., S. thinks there’s cause to celebrate—just not the Turn of the Century, or the Millennium, quite yet. A few latecomer ad campaigns will push “real millennium” products for 01/01/01, but otherwise the 20th Century and 2nd Millennium will end largely unnoticed by any but priests and scholars. And SCRVPVLVS, if spared from the coming cataclysm.


1. See the CMS Frequently Answered Questions list (go Wayback) published by the Center for Millennial Studies.

2. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey.

3. The Christian calendar was proposed around 525 A.D. by Dionysus Exiguus.

4. In the Christian calendar, dates in the year before the birth of Jesus are In the First Year Before Christ (1 B.C.); the year before it, 2 B.C., and so on. In the Common calendar, the year of the birth of Jesus is the First Year of the Common Era (1 C.E.); the year before Jesus’ birth is the First Year Before the Common Era (1 B.C.E.); the year before it, 2 B.C.E., and so on.

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