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Article Published February 24, 1999

By: Xenia Stanford Biography & Archived Articles

Most people understand that not everyone in the world today follows the same calendar. For example, we know Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on January 7th while most of the Christian world observes the December 25th date.

This is because Ukrainians use the Julian calendar so-named for Julius Caesar while most of the rest follow the one instituted by Pope Gregory XIII, hence called Gregorian. Even then both use a calendar of twelve months with similar names. If these are abbreviated, we expect to find such notations as Sept., Oct. or Nov.


However, while looking at a film on vital records, one researcher saw dates for an infant's birth and death listed as "b 7br 6 1703, d 9br 2 1703" and another found the abbreviations for several months as: 7bre, 8bre, 9bre and xbre.

The explanation that the names come from Latin for numbers of the months is still confusing since these numbers no longer correspond to the position in which these months fall today.
    7br/7bre is September (septembre) from septem for the number 7;
    8br/8bre is October (octobre) from octo for the number 8;
    9br/9bre is Nov. (novembre) from novem for the number 9;
    10br/10bre or xbr/xbre is December (decembre) from decem for the number 10.
    (The "x" in xbr/xbre is an alternate abbreviation from the Roman numeral for 10.)
However, to us this appears not to make any sense as September is our ninth month in the calendar year, not the seventh. We mustn't forget to think in other times and cultures, rather than assuming just because something is so now, it always was thus. The numbering of these months is explained simply by the fact that January was not always the first month of the year. In fact, in the first calendar upon which our modern ones are based, there were only ten months. January and February did not exist.

This first calendar was supposedly created by the mythical King Romulus, first emperor of Rome, when he founded the city in 735 BC. The year of founding became year one on this ten month calendar.*

Modern explanations for why Romulus chose ten rather than twelve months range from the theory that it more closely approximated the gestation time of a foetus to this mythical king's apparent love for the number ten (everything from the Senate to military units had to be evenly divisible by ten) or to the ten digits on our hands and feet. For whatever reason, apparently it was already known it took longer than ten months to complete an annual solar cycle of lunar months.

Nevertheless, this Romulan year of ten months began with March. Thus counting forward makes September the 7th month, October the 8th, Nov. the 9th and December the 10th. Thus the explanation of the naming and numbering of those months.

The other months were named on this initial calendar as follows [in Latin followed by (English)(French)]:
    Martis (March)(mars) for Mars, god of War;
    Aprilis (April)(avril) various explanations given by different scholars, but the one I prefer is "apricus" which means sunny;
    Maius (May)(mai) for Maia, goddess of youth and vitality (i.e. new growth) or Mother Earth;
    Junius (June)(juin) for Juno, queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage - hence a great month for weddings!
Then the months were simply named for their order in sequence: Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, Nov. and December. Later Quintilis was renamed Julius (July)(juli) for Julius Caesar and Sextilis became Augustus (August)(aout) for Augustus Caesar.

Various other Roman emperors in the Caesar lineage tried (and some briefly succeeded) in having the other numbered months named after them. However, when the Senate tried to name September after Tiberius, he wisely commented "What will you do when there are thirteen Caesars?"(Duncan, p.35)**

At one time the Cypriot calendar named months after Augustus Caesar's wife, Livia; nephew, Agrippa; half-sister, Octavia; stepsons, Nero and Drusus; and the legendary ancestor from whom the Caesar's claimed to descend, Aeneas. However, none of these attempts to rename the months persisted and the calendar returned to the numbers seven through ten.

Romulus's successor, King Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (715 to 672 BC), during his reign added Januarius (January)(janvier) named for the god Janus and Februarius (February)(fevrier) named for Februa, a Roman purification ritual, as the eleventh and twelfth months.

The common explanation for why Numa chose Janus as a month name is that he intended it for the beginning of the year. Janus is the double faced god representing both coming and going or beginning and ending. Hence one face supposedly looked at the year just past and the other faced forward to the coming year. Even if this was Numa's intention, the beginning of the year persisted as March until centuries later when Julius Caesar introduced his calendar.


Julius Caesar By the time Julius Caesar began his calendar reform, miscalculations and confusion had misaligned the calendar against the solar year. Caesar summoned the best philosophers and mathematicians to assist in correcting this. Many of the reforms were identical to those of Ptolemy III of Egypt in 238 BC, such as a year of 365¼ days followed by a leap year of 366 days every four years to make up missed time.

However, to ensure the calendar was consistent with the vernal equinox, which was supposed to occur on March 25, Caesar added two extra months for the first year of his calendar, 46 BC. Caesar named this year "the last annual confusion" but his empire called it as they found it: "the Year of [most or ultimate] Confusion".

He also decreed the following year (45 BC) should begin with the month of January rather than March. It is believed he did this to move the year's dawning nearer to the winter solstice.

Julius Caesar also simplified remembering the number of days in a month by alternating the months from 31 days for odd months starting with January to 30 for every even month except February which had 28 days with an extra day during a leap year.

It was the Senate who when naming Sextilis after Augustus Caesar muddied the waters. They decided this emperor's month should not have fewer days than his predecessor's, so they gave August 31 days like July. Then to avoid three months of 31 in a row, they changed September to 30 and October to 31. To complete the alternating numbers, Nov. was shortened to 30 and the extra day given to December. Thus "thirty days hath September, April, June and Nov. " with thirty-one for all the rest except February.


January did not remain as the first month throughout the Julian calendar's history. The beginning of the year at times reverted to March and other starting dates were introduced for various periods.

The Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (A.D. 284-305) For example, when Diocletian re-conquered Egypt, he introduced a fiscal cycle of 15 years which started September 1, 297 AD. The beginning of the fiscal year as September soon spread to the Roman Empire and soon September 1st was regarded as the beginning of the calendar year as well. Even after the Western Christian countries reverted to March or January, the Eastern Christian countries kept the September date for many years.

Soon after the beginning of Christianity, England and other parts of Western Europe accepted winter solstice as December 25 and the birth of Christ. For much of the Middle Ages England observed the birth of Christ or December 25 as the first day of the year.

A December 25th birthday means the date of conception was the spring equinox or March 25th. This also was the date Christ arose from the dead or was reborn. The Church celebrated this as the feast of Annunciation which was the day the Virgin Mary was supposedly visited by an angel to tell her of the Incarnation (rising from the dead by Christ). This day became known as Lady Day in England and her colonies during the latter part of the Middle Ages and was accepted by them as the beginning of the year. This persisted until 1751 so during the founding of America, the first day of the year was still regarded as March 25th.

Thus not only was January not always the beginning month, the initial day of the year was not always the first of the month.


I have still not told you what month is fructidor. Nor have I told you about the Gregorian Calendar and the different dates of its acceptance by various countries which meant during the settlement of North American two different European calendars were observed on the continent at the same time.

To learn this and why the French created April Fool's Day, see the next two issues.

*An explanation of the change in the numbering of years in modern usage (i.e. AD and BC) as well as when the New Millennium truly begins, will be found in PART II.

**A bibliography including web sites for calculating dates according to various calendars will be given at the end of Part III.

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