With many faiths and several different calendars in the world, why is everyone prepared to celebrate the turn of the Christian millennium?


November 10, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

There's an old story, the truth of which is uncertain, about a Baltimore newspaper that once ran this headline over its annual yuletide story: "Christmas Celebrated Around the World."

A better example of rustic thinking couldn't be imagined than this, by a headline writer apparently impervious to the fact that Christmas is just not for everybody.

But that happened a long time ago. The world today is more sophisticated, more diverse. Or at least one would presume that such diversity as remains in it is more widely appreciated.

So what is all this about The Millennium? Where is the origin of all these plans to celebrate its arrival everywhere from Kiribati -- a speck of a state that sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- to the Great Wall of China, to the dusty acre of sand before the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt?

All three are venues for big fireworks and cork-popping millennium bashes come Jan. 1, 2000, which is puzzling. Not only is that date wrong -- the first day of the third millennium is Jan. 1, 2001 -- but the millennium under discussion is a Christian construct and only one of those three is a majority-Christian country: Kiribati. Fifty-three percent of its 80,919 people are Roman Catholics and 41 percent are Protestants, but Muslims ** and Buddhists predominate in Egypt and China.

Religion is important when it comes to calendars and millennia and such. The Christian calendar begins with the birth of Christ. Most people know that, even non-Christians.

The Islamic calendar starts its count the day the prophet Mohammed packed up and left Mecca for Medina. This leave-taking is called the hijra and it corresponds to A.D. Sept. 20, 622, on the Christian calendar, known formally as the Gregorian Calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII. According to the Islamic calendar this is the year 1,419.

All countries whose people are Muslims -- Shiite or Sunni -- accept this calendar, but one. Libya begins its calendar on the date of Mohammed's death, 10 years later. This was an innovation introduced by Col. Muammar el Kadafiin the 1980s.

"He thought the death of the last prophet was more important than his migration," said Professor Marius Deeb of the Johns Hopkins' Middle East studies center.

Deeb says most Muslims conduct their lives by the Christian calendar, except when it comes to Islamic holy days, such as Ramadan.

Islamic states given to fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, usually try to abide by the Islamic calendar internally, says Deeb. "But when they have to deal with the world they have to go by the Christian calendar."

Which is to say, business calls the tune. Certainly it does for most Jews living in Western countries like this one.

5759 and counting

The Jewish calendar is one of the most ancient among the world's major civilizations, though some believe Hindu calendars may predate it. At sundown on Sept. 20, observant Jews celebrated the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, and welcomed in 5759.

The Jewish calendar began with what may be the ultimate

religious event: creation of the universe. This, according to rabbinical lore, is when it all started, under the hand of God.

Nothing endorsing the Jewish count of 5,759 years can be found in the Torah -- the five books of Moses -- according to Rabbi Paul Caplan of Baltimore's Beth Am synagogue on Eutaw Place. But some justification is written in the Talmud, and there is a reference in Leviticus to a new year and "the blowing of a horn."

Which is what people do on New Year's Eve -- even in China, where, believe it or not, a New Year's party on the Great Wall will not be so foreign a thing as might seem. China has been operating on the Gregorian calendar since 1912, following the revolution that ended the great string of imperial dynasties and introduced a republic under Sun Yat-sen.

Before that it conducted business according to its traditional calendar, according to which we are in the year 4696.

Like the Jewish one, the Chinese calendar has a non-historical beginning: The Chinese count was begun during the dynasty of an emperor named Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor as he was known. No one has ever proved he existed.

"The earliest date we can actually record is right after the Zhou Dynasty, during the period of the Warring States," says Willow Chang, an expert on Chinese culture at the China Institute in New York. "That date accords with 841 B.C. on the Christian calendar."

Because the traditional Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar, New Year's Day is a movable feast. (Calendars usually come in two varieties: solar and lunar. The first relates to the time it takes for the Earth to orbit the sun, the second the time it takes for the moon to travel around the Earth.)

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