It’s October 1917 and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik followers have laid siege for days to the Winter Palace, former home of the Czar (gone since February) and the current home of the Provisional Government. Now, after a shootout with the remaining guards, they are searching for the remaining government officials and breaking into the Czar’s world-class wine cellar. The October Revolution is the dawn of the Soviet era. The date is Oct. 25 in Russia, the start of the October Revolution, but across most of the world, it is actually Nov. 7.
To understand why, we need to travel 10,000 years back to Scotland, then head over to Julius Caesar’s feast hall, and then, just briefly, we’ve got to put in an appearance with a few popes and French revolutionaries. Oh, yeah, and we have to stop in at Stonehenge too. Anyway, get your flux capacitors ready. All set? Good, let’s go.
The world’s oldest known calendar was found under a field in northern Scotland and dates back 10,000 years. It was created by nomadic hunters looking to tie to patterns of their game with the cycles of the moon. The first calendars would be based on the waxing and waning of the moon, and would prove so popular that some cultures still use them today.
The disadvantage of a lunar calendar is that it is 11 days shorter than the actual solar year, which could cause catastrophic problems for farmers planning crop plantings if left uncorrected. Some cultures, such as the Sumerians, adopted hybrid lunisolar calendars, which tracked the cycles of the moon, and the integrated it with early attempts at sun tracking. One theory to the meaning of Stonehenge is that it an early mechanism for tracking Earth’s relationship with the sun. Serving a purpose similar to a sunrise tracking app, Stonehenge aligns with the rising sun on the morning of the summer solstice (unless this is pure coincidence, there is much debate on the matter).
As Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson would no doubt lament, the world is not run by astronomers (yet). In the ancient world of the Mediterrean, the Roman Republic would have the will to rise to power. As Rome’s legions conquered Italy, Greece, Spain, and North Africa, the job of keeping the Roman lunisolar calendar fell to the high priest, the Pontifex Maximus (more on why that sounds familiar in a bit). Among the duties of the office was to insert leap months when necessary to correct the seasons of the year. However, when facing the specter of annihilation, such as when Hannibal and the Carthaginian army spent 15 years rampaging through Italy, killing every army in its path, leap months were forgotten. By the first century BC, which was a time of chronic Roman political turmoil and civil war, the Roman calendar was a mess.
Cut to Alexandria, Egypt, and Julius Caesar is looking down at a severed head. Its 2061 years ago and Caesar has just chased his archrival Pompey the Great from Italy to Greece to Egypt. The adolescent Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy took the liberty of having Pompey killed, thinking that it would endear him to the general. He was failed: Caesar was reportedly furious over Pompey’s inglorious end and decided to intervene in the ongoing Egyptian civil war. The opposition was led by the beguiling Cleopatra, Ptolemy’s older sister, and with Caesar’s help, she won complete control of Egypt.
Caesar and his newfound paramour did what every fabulously wealthy despot power couple would do: conceive a child and name them after a direction on the compass. Oh wait, wrong despot power couple. Instead, they conceived a child and threw an awesome feast. At that feast, Caesar was reputed to have talked with a man of letters who told him of the true nature of the heavens: that “stars alone control The movement of the sky, with adverse force Opposing: while the sun divides the year.”
Whether is true or not, when Caesar returned to Rome , he brought in a top Egyptian astronomer and commissioned a complete realignment of the Roman calendar around the solar year. However, based on the available calculations, the top minds calculated the year as being 365 days, 6 hours, not the actual length of 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, 12 seconds.
Caesar implemented his new calendar in 46 BCE and made the year 445 days to compensate for the previous centuries of miscalculations. He did not live very long under the new calendar as he was assassinated by his enemies who feared that he would make political changes to the Roman Republic that were more drastic than his calendar reforms. But his calendar would live on for a good long while, which was good enough to throw things off.
The task of correcting the 10 minute, 48 second discrepancy in the calendar fell to a new Roman Pontiff, this time a man named Ugo Boncompagni, better known by his Pope name, Gregory XIII.
Just as Caesar had done more than a millennia and half before, Pope Gregory convened top minds to study the calendar, just as the U.S. Government brought in top minds to study the Ark of the Covenant after Indiana Jones brought it to them. At the urging of Jesuit priest and leading astronomer Christopher Clavius, the Catholic Church decided to eliminate the dates between Oct. 5 and Oct. 15 from 1582 — just outright cancel them — to correct the problem and set things straight once and for all.
While a few countries took Greg up on the offer, implementing the new Gregorian Calendar worldwide would prove to be problem that would take hundreds of years to correct. The world of Christianity had splintered over the centuries, first when the Eastern European Churches had left during the Great Schism of 12th century and again in Western Europe with the Protestant Reformation. As a result, Great Britain and her colonies would not change their calendar until 1752, when they opted to cancel 11 days in September.
Russia held out for much longer. The invasion of the Winter Palace was the opening salvo of the October Revolution which, by the rest of the world’s standard, actually took place in November. While the Russians changed calendars within a few months of Lenin’s and the Bolsheviks’ power seize, they did not rename their revolution to the November Revolution. As the highly stylized official film of the October Revolution show, truth was was not a priority for the new regime (but at least the wine cellar makes an appearance).
photo credit: Wikimedia Commons