People who exist on multiple timelines

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Many people around the world follow different calendars, which leads to some unusual birthday celebrations, according to Erin Craig.

It wasn’t until my third 40th birthday that I became suspicious.

I’d been a little preoccupied and unprepared for the existential baggage of a milestone birthday the first time, especially since I thought I was only 38. A few months later, I turned 40 again. Well, I’ve never been good at math. But then I turned 41 a few times, then 40 again. No way, time was clearly out of whack.

Many cultures, it turns out, are fine with experiencing multiple years – or multiple ages – at the same time. Everywhere in the world, the year 2023 has begun. But if you go to Myanmar, it’s also 1384, while Thailand takes you to 2566. Moroccans pray in 1444 but farm in 2972, and Ethiopians work their way through 2015, which has 13 months for them. Meanwhile, in my home country of South Korea, New Year is everyone’s birthday. This explains why I turned 40 three times in a row.

South Koreans are born at age one and have two to three official ages at any given time: domestic, international (counting from zero), and a bonus year when the entire country ages together on January 1st. (This can also happen symbolically at Lunar New Year.) Furthermore, Koreans have the option of celebrating their personal birthdays according to the Gregorian calendar or the traditional lunar calendar. Technically, I could have used the system for six birthdays, but who wants to see that?

As a misplaced American, I was unfamiliar with this casual plurality. I thought time was one of the few things we all agreed on as a species. Sure, people used to measure time differently (Stonehenge was a massive calendar), but I wasn’t used to thinking of other calendars as current. Certainly not simultaneously. Mostly, I didn’t question my own perception of time.

The slow road to now

Dates exist in the background of our lives and are one of those things that appear to exist. However, any date (for example, 1 January 2023) is the product of a specific timekeeping system, in this case the Gregorian calendar.

As the ISO-approved global-standard calendar, mandated across international sectors ranging from aviation to politics, one might expect the Gregorian calendar to be extremely accurate and efficient. No, it does not. Its rise to dominance was largely due to being in the right place, at the right time, and with the right imperialist culture.

The Gregorian calendar, a product of religious doctrine and Renaissance science, was created to correct drift between the Catholic liturgical year (then based on the Julian calendar) and the actual solar year. The Julian was only 11 minutes and 14 seconds off – impressive math for 45BC – but this difference would inexorably add up over time. By the late 16th century, when Pope Gregory XIII ordered a reform, the calendar year was roughly 10 days out of sync with the seasons.

Gregory’s calendar reduced the lag to 26 seconds. However, its introduction in 1582 was met with immediate opposition: neither Protestants nor Orthodox Christians were willing to reimagine time based on a papal decree.

As a result, only the Catholic parts of Europe adopted the new calendar in time for 1600. Other regions gradually joined as the centuries passed: Protestant Germany and the Netherlands in 1700, followed by England and its colonies in 1800. Even though it had been adopted by non-Christian countries such as Japan and Egypt by 1900, Orthodox countries such as Romania, Russia, and Greece continued to use it well into the twentieth century. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that Europe unanimously welcomed the new century on January 1st, Gregorian calendar.

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However, by the mid-nineteenth century, when a period of colonization brought more than 80% of the world under European control, most major imperial powers were on Gregorian time. This coincided with a push among the European and American scientific and business communities for a global calendar to facilitate commerce. The Gregorian got the part almost by default.

The calendar spread through other means in areas where Europe did not conquer. According to historian Vanessa Ogle in her book The Global Transformation of Time, capitalism, evangelism, and a scientific obsession with uniformity did more to standardize time than any imperialist policy. Colonialism was not even a significant factor. When Gregorian dates first appeared in almanacs in Beirut in the late 1800s, it was under Ottoman rule. Japan was never colonized in any way. Despite this, the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1872. The knowledge that the relationship would not be monogamous may have aided acceptance.

Before the Gregorian calendar, there were multiple calendars in use. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Mayans used two calendars, one religious and one administrative. For his 1430s calendar reform, King Sejong of Korea commissioned two systems: one adapted from the Chinese calendar and one from the Arabic calendar. In 1880s Beirut, the Gregorian calendar was only one of four in use. Even Japan, which ostensibly switched to Gregorian time, kept its imperial dating system, the Rokuyo calendar of auspicious days, and the 24 Sekki calendar of seasonal changes, all of which are still in use today.

Clare Oxby, a social anthropologist who has studied calendar use in the Sahel and the Sahara, coined the term “calendar pluralism” to describe the coexistence of multiple timekeeping systems, in the same way that legal pluralism describes societies with multiple legal systems. This may appear to be a juggling act, but different calendars serve different purposes. In north Africa, Imazighen, Tuareg, and other Berber-speaking communities may use three or four systems at the same time: stellar calendars to mark agricultural seasons, the Islamic lunar calendar to guide religious practice, and the Gregorian calendar to govern interactions. Living in multiple timelines can be a useful way to bring disparate temporal needs together.

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