Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, was always rattled by snakes, so perhaps this isn't his year. Photo: AP
I FEEL like Indiana Jones - why did it have to be snakes?! I hate snakes. Nevertheless, the Chinese New Year, which will be celebrated on February 10, is the year of the snake - so I'd better get used to it. It does beg the question, however: what's going on with the Chinese calendar and why is it so different to ours?
We know some Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas well into January because they still employ the Julian calendar ecclesiastically, but there must be something else going on.
There is. But let's briefly examine the Julian calendar first. It began in the time of Julius Caesar, but did not take into account the journey of the Earth around the sun with the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar. The latter deems the year almost 11 minutes shorter than the former. Consequently, over long periods of time, the minutes add into hours and the hours into days. By the time Pope Gregory XIII introduced the new system in Catholic countries by decree in 1582, 10 days had to be removed to bring it into line with where astronomers thought it should be. This changeover meant the day immediately after October 4, 1582, was October 15, and the days in between ceased to exist for that year.
There's a need to clarify that most eastern Asian countries, including China, have used the Gregorian calendar for a long time. The Chinese government first adopted it for official business on January 1, 1912, and it has been in use since. However, for traditional Chinese holidays their old calendar is used to position the dates, and Chinese New Year always falls between January 21 and February 20.
This traditional Chinese calendar was based on the phases of the moon. Space will not allow a full discussion of lunar calendars, but, in essence, the first day of each month begins on ''New Moon''. It also means each month lasts about 29 days, or until the moon returns to its initial phase (''month'' betrays its origins in ''moonth'').
There are issues, because there aren't exactly 12 lunar cycles in a 365-day year. Even with the occasional inclusion of an ''intercalary'' (extra) month to bring the calendar into line with observation, it does not match the consistent accuracy of the Gregorian system.
Most cultures that use lunar calendars today do so for religious or ceremonial reasons, and the world generally welcomes the Gregorian's precision.