Some 1475 years ago,
a Scythian monk set out to solve a mathematical puzzle which
had defeated the best minds of his era - to formulate a simple
algorithm to ascertain the date of Easter in any year.
The rather uncharitable name by which he was known amongst his
monastic brethren, Dionysius Exiguous ("Dennis the Little"),
may well have been forgotten by history, but for a relatively
simple shortcut which he took in devising this algorithm.
In those times, years were counted according to the reigns of
local rulers; Diminutive Dennis saw that his task would be made
very much easier if years were counted consecutively from a
common starting-point. As his starting-point, he chose
the year now known as 1 AD.
The way in which he arrived
at this starting-point is the subject of some doubt. One
view is that he attempted to ascertain the date of Christ's
birth, regarding that event (from the viewpoint of a Christian
cleric) as the most logical starting-point for what was proposed
to be a universal system of counting years. It is more
likely, though, that he simply chose a year which happened to
fit comfortably with his proposed algorithm, and which also
happened to coincide with the (approximate) beginning of the
Christian era. Most likely, it was the English cleric
and historical scholar, the Venerable Bede, who started using
the abbreviation AD (Anno Domini, or "Year of our Lord") when
applying the system devised by Dennis, thereby popularising
the assumption that the year 1 AD was the year in which the historical
personage of Jesus Christ was born.
Either way - whether
the mistake was made by Dennis, or by Bede - it clearly was
a mistake. Whilst the precise year and date of Christ's
nativity cannot be accurately ascertained, from either Biblical
or other historical references, this much is clear: that Christ
was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in about
the year now known as 4BC. Incidentally, it is also considered
to be unlikely that Christ was born on 25 December, in the dead
of Winter; modern historians (both secular and theological)
accept that the Child of Nazareth was probably born in the Spring
or Summer, between the years 6BC and 4BC.
So the news, for anyone
intent on celebrating Christ's 2000th birthday, is this: you're
too late !
Of course, if Christ
had been born in the year 1 AD, His 2000th birthday would not
occur until the year 2001 AD. And even accepting that the
year 1 AD had no particular historical or religious significance,
other than as the year arbitrarily chosen more than five centuries
later as the starting-point for an obscure Scythian monk's calculations,
its 2000th anniversary will occur on 1 January 2001.
it is pointless arguing that most "millennium" celebrations
will take place twelve months too soon. Despite the backing
of both the Greenwich Observatory in England, and the US Naval
Observatory, anyone who dares to suggest that the forthcoming
celebrations should be postponed until the end of the 2000th
year - specifically, the evening of 31 December 2000 to 1 January
2001 - is suspected of pathological obduracy. It would
be a strange family indeed that celebrates Grandpa's "century"
on the first day of his 100th year; it would be an equally strange
cricket team that applauds a batsman's "century" as he sets
out on his 100th run; and it would be an exceedingly strange
student who celebrates a decade of education on the first day
of "Year 10". But, with so many people committed
to having a big party - and so many businesses jostling to profit
from the occasion - even the most cogent arguments will not
dissuade people from celebrating the 1999th anniversary of an
And if people are hard
of hearing when told that they are celebrating the wrong year,
they are stone deaf if anyone points out that they are also
celebrating the wrong date. Yet it is only since the mid-18th
Century that Western civilisation has agreed on celebrating
1 January as the first day of the year. In Roman times,
the year commenced on 1 March - this is why the 10th, 11th and
12th months of our calendar were named by the Romans as the
8th month (October), 9th month (November), and 10th month (December).
For reasons which have been lost in the mists of history, the
English traditionally celebrated New Year's Day on 25th March,
known as "Lady Day", and supposed to be the anniversary of Christ's
conception (falling precisely nine months before Christmas).
Throughout English history, until the adoption of the Gregorian
Calendar in 1752, 24 March of one year was immediately followed
by 25 March of the following year. This "Year of Grace"
(as it was known) still features in English revenue law, as
the English fiscal year commences on 6 April. When England
adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, 11 days were lost; in
order to recover taxes for a full year of 365 days, the Exchequer
counted from 25 March 1752 to 5 April 1753 - and has continued
the practice ever since.
Though it may seem strange
to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of a day on which nothing
in particular happened - and to have that celebration on the
wrong day in the wrong year - there is still one plausible argument
in favour of a big celebration on New Year's Day, 2000.
Mankind has always attached a mystical significance to "special"
numbers. After ten centuries of years beginning with the
digit "1", who can doubt that there is some mystical significance
when the calendar changes over to years beginning with the digit
"2" ? Only the most extreme pedant would object that
Arabic numeration was not used by Europeans until well after
the calendar changed from the year CMXCIX (999) to M (1000).
so, only a minority of the World's population will be enriched
by the experience of seeing this millennial change in their
calendars. For Orthodox Jews, whose calendars date from
the (supposed) time of Moses, next year will be the year 5760/61.
In Islamic countries, whose calendars date from the time of
the prophet Mohammad, it will be the year 1421. And in
the world's most populous country - China - it will be the "Year
of the Dragon", with the number 4698.
Even for those of us
who number our years from the arbitrary starting-point chosen
by Dennis the Little, the date on our calendars will only appear
to be "special" because we use Arabic numerals, based on a system
devised to allow our primitive forebears to count on their fingers.
Despite all the hype surrounding the so-called "Millennium Bug",
the year 2000 will not be of any significance to computers,
which use a binary system of counting. So far as your
computer is concerned, we are merely moving from the year 1111100111
to the year 1111101000. It is only when it attempts to
translate binary notation into decimal notation, so that the
numbers can be understood by a species who learnt to count on
their fingers, that your computer may run into trouble.
records that each previous fin-de-siècle has been greeted
with a measure of consternation and anxiety, not the least of
which occurred at the end of the Tenth Century. According
to various accounts - which may or may not have been exaggerated
by later historians - an apocalyptic "panic terror" swept Christendom.
The "Second Coming" was anticipated with less than universal
equanimity, and the "end of the world" was considered to be
We like to feel that
we are a little less superstitious - and a little more civilised
- than our ancestors were 1000 years ago. At the beginning
of the present Century, peaceful and even optimistic celebrations
were held, at least in Western countries; and it is of some
interest to note that the world was not gripped by the fundamental
arithmetical error of celebrating the wrong year, since the
major celebrations occurred on 1 January 1901. This had
a particular significance in Australia, since the first day
of the new Century was also the first day of a new federated
It is sad to think that
the ignorance which engendered "millennium madness" 1000 years
ago is still alive today, despite the fact that citizens of
even the World's most underprivileged countries are far better
educated now than citizens of even the World's most advanced
countries were then. What makes this even sadder is that
today's "millennium madness" is not the result of sincere and
devout (albeit misguided) religious zeal, but of the commercial
zealotry of people determined to make some fast money.
And the money is certainly there to be made, with employees
in service industries charging 5 or 10 times their usual hourly
rates, $500.00 per head dinners in restaurants, and quite astronomical
charges for flights to and accommodation at places which purport
to offer an early glimpse of the "new millennium's" first dawn.
an unrepentant kill-joy would attempt to deny people the pleasure
of a major celebration, even if the major celebration falls
only 1998 years and 10 months after the date (1 March, in the
year 1 AD) which Dennis the Little chose as the starting-point
for his long-forgotten algorithm. But there is some advantage
in being a kill-joy, as there are not likely to be exorbitant
charges for travel, accommodation and meals when the true millennial
anniversary occurs on 1 March 2001. Meanwhile, the last
laugh surely belongs to Dionysius Exiguous, which may be some
compensation for his humiliating moniker.