Calendar alternatives

Today’s Wall Street Journal includes an article by “the numbers guy,” Charles Forelle, about the problems of our modern calendar. Everyone knows the most elementary aspect of the problem: we never know what day of the week any significant event will fall on. (Quick: do you remember what day of the week 9/11 was? I don’t; I’d have to look it up!). This means that the major religious festivals, because they are moveable feasts, will fall on a Monday, a Saturday, a Wednesday, etc. Even those that don’t have all the complications associated with the lunar calendar a la Easter are still linked to specific dates: Michaelmas, September 29; Christmas, December 25; and so on and so on. Most of us (myself included) can’t even predict what day of the week our own birthday will fall on in a given year.

There are less obvious drawbacks to the Gregorian calendar as well. For example, the year is traditionally broken down into four quarters. But under our current calendar, they are of unequal length. Q1 (Jan-Mar) is 90 days, except in leap years, when it’s 91; Q2 (Apr-Jun) is 91; Q3 (Jul-Sep) is 92; Q4 (Oct-Dec) is 92. Also, of course, every 400 years we have a nonleap year when we’re expecting a leap year. It’s all very complicated.

All of this complication ensures a steady source of revenue for makers of calendars, but doesn’t do anyone else a whole lot of good, as far as most people can see.

There have been numerous efforts to reform the calendar over the years, but none of them has had much success. In Forelle’s article, which I link to but I suspect will disappear soon because the WSJ is vaporware, Forelle reviews a couple of contenders for new calendars:¬†Symmetry454, a creation of Irv Bromberg at the University of Toronto, and The World Calendar, first proposed by the United Nations in the 1950s and kept alive today by Wayne Edward Richardson of

Both proposals keep our traditional 7-day week; all they do is tinker with the months and the leap years to make things come out fairly regular. Bromberg describes his symmetry454 very concisely:

The Symmetry454 calendar is a simple perpetual solar calendar that conserves the traditional 7-day week, has symmetrical equal quarters comprised of 4+5+4 weeks, and starts every month on Monday.

Holidays are fixed, every month starts on a Monday, every quarter has the same number of days, and each month has 4 or 5 weeks. The one sticking point is leap years: there’s a hard-to-remember algorithm that adds an extra week in December every 5 or 6 years. There’s some sort of symmetry after 293 years, but really, that isn’t much of a selling point to us humans, whose lifespan is somewhat shy of that goal.

The World Calendar doesn’t hold with Bromberg’s 35-day months, but it has its own quirks. Like S454, the WC is perpetual, but instead of each month starting on a Monday, every quarter starts on a Sunday, and subsequent months start on Wednesdays or Fridays. Quarters are equal (91 days each), the 12 months have lengths that we’re used to (31 and 30 numbered days), and the solution to the leap year is easier to stomach than Bromberg’s solution: December always has an extra, unnumbered day, called Worldsday, as a year-end holiday. And every leap year, we get an extra, unnumbered day in June as well.

But I can’t find any mention of how Richardson determines when a leap year is needed, so I’d like to see that before I decide which of these quixotic schemes I’d like to wager on.

And against the whole idea of calendar reform, there’s the problem any perpetual calendar faces: boredom. Every date falls on the same day of the week, year in and year out. Of course this is one of the major selling points of a perpetual calendar, but it’s also, at least to some extent, a drawback. For example, my birthday happens to fall on a Friday in the World Calendar scheme, which is a pretty nice day to celebrate. End of the week and all that. So I wouldn’t mind adopting this calendar. But what about those poor people who get stuck with a Monday, year in and year out?

All told, I kind of enjoy the quirks of our current calendar…And really, I like getting new calendars every year. The designs are fun, the joy of discovering what day of the week my birthday is on, etc. etc. Look how boring the two proposals are on paper (courtesy of the WSJ):

Graphic from WSJ, December 30, 2009, page A12.

Really not the most inspired layout, huh? For now, at least, I’m happy to march in step with (most of) the rest of the world on the calendar thing.