The Origins of the Calendar Months

[Note: I wrote this article over the last weekend of 2010 and emailed it to my BT editor whether they would like to run it. I did not receive any reply but apparently Brunei Times did run it. It was published yesterday.]

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The Origins of the Calendar Months
By Rozan Yunos

Human beings have always been curious and have realized that the need to know and to keep time was useful to their lives especially in knowing when was the best time to sow and reap their crops. They look to the sun and the moon for their guidance. From these observations began all calendars with people recording time using the natural cycles of the moon and the sun.

The difficulty was that the Earth year does not quite round up nicely. The earth year is 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes 46 seconds long or 365.242199 days and the time between full moons is 29.53 days. At first the calendars need constant adjustment but the Romans eventually had the best calendar and that was used and had influenced us till today including the months that we used now.

The original Roman calendar had 10 months with 304 days in a year that began with the month of March. Over time, two additional months were added. A few names of the month were derived from Roman gods and goddesses. Most simply came from the numbers of the months or -- in two cases -- in honour of Roman emperors.

The month of January was named after Janus. Janus was the Roman god of doors, gateways, beginnings, endings including sunrise and sunset. He is shown as having two faces. One at the front and one at the back of his head supposedly to symbolize his powers.

The month of February was said to come from the Latin word Februa which is the Feast of Purification. This ancient Rome celebration celebrated the festival of forgiveness for sins. Februare is a Latin word meaning ‘to purify’. It is also possible that the month could be derived from another Roman god, Februus, the god of death and purification.

March was originally the first month of the Roman Julian calendar. March was derived from Mars, the Roman god of war and was considered as one of their most important gods. Mars was also regarded as the father of the Roman people.

April was originally Aprilis which is from the Latin word ‘aperire’ which means to open. Presumably this is because it is in April in which the buds begin to open. It also indicated a time of fertility and it is supposedly in this month that the earth was supposed to open up for the plants to grow. It is possible that Aprilis was originally called Aphrilis, a Latin name which comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love equated to the Roman goddess of Venus.

May was probably named after Maiesta, a Roman goddess of honour and reverence. She was also the Roman goddess of the spring and was the mother of Mercury by Jupiter and the daughter of Atlas. Maiesta was also known as Maia, the goddess of growth and increase.

June was named after another Roman goddess, Juno. She was the sister and wife of Jupiter. The Romans considered Juno as the guardian of all women and protector of their lives. However, it is also possible that both June and May came from iuniores (young men; juniors) as opposed to maiores (grown men; majors) for May, these two months being dedicated to young and old men.

July was named after Julius Caesar. Originally the month was named Quintilis (fifth month) but in 43 BC, he decided to use a purely solar calendar with 365 days and this calendar became known as the Julian Calendar. It ordained that three successive “common years” of 365 days should be followed by a fourth year with an extra day added to the month of February to make a total of 366 days. By adding 90 days in the year 46 - 45 B.C., Caesar also made spring begin once more in March. The Julian reform also reaffirmed January 1 as the start of the Roman calendar year. This calendar stayed in effect until it was revised in 1582 AD. Julius Caesar was the Roman General and statesman who laid down the foundations of the Roman Imperial System.

August was originally Sextilis (sixth month) from the Latin word sextu which means six, but the name was later changed in honor of the first of the Roman emperors, Octavius Augustus Caesar.

The last three months are based on numbers bearing in mind that the original calendar only ran for ten months from March to December. December was supposed to be the tenth and final month of the year.

September is derived from the Latin ‘septem’ meaning seven. September was Septembris in the Roman Calendar. October is derived from the Latin ‘octo’ meaning eight. October was Octobris in the Roman Calendar. November was Novembris in the Roman Calendar. December is derived from the Latin ‘decem’ meaning ten. December was Decembris in the Roman Calendar.

Even though we use calendars to help us manage our personal life, our schedules, our time and our activities, especially when each one of us has numerous work, school, and family commitments, not many among us know how calendars were derived and how the months were named.

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