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#13: Calendars II: Naming Dates

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue.

In Jotting #6, I described some of the possible structures of calendars, and briefly touched on the basic idea of naming a date. However, there are more ways to name a date than the sequential numbering of years from an epoch, or month-date or serial dating for dates.

It should be noted that the discussion of serial dating in that Jotting assumed sequential numbering of the days within a specific year; there are examples of serial dates from the beginning of the epoch instead – the astronomical Julian Date system simply counts days from noon on November 24, 4714 BCE (in the proleptic* * referring to a “proleptic” calendar indicates that one is applying the named calendar to dates that occurred before the actual creation and implementation of that calendar, e.g., applying the Gregorian calendar to any date before October 15, 1582 is using the proleptic Gregorian calendar. Gregorian calendar), and the Mesoamerican Long Count does so from August 11, 3114 BCE (in the proleptic Gregorian calendar). The Long Count is expressed as a mixed-radix (bases 20 and 18) number, rather than a pure decimal number.

Classic Alien Module 1: Aslan indicates that the Aslan calendar actually names each day individually, but suggests using serial dating within the year for convenience. The module does not say where the names are drawn from, but given what we’ve been told about Aslan culture, it certainly wouldn’t be unreasonable to draw names from various symbols of honor or names of honorable heros.

Naming each day individually has been used in Earth’s history as well, usually in correspondence within the (Roman Catholic) Church during the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, where letters were often ‘dated’ as being on the day of a particular saint, e.g., “St. Bonaventure’s Day, A.D. 1575”. The ‘saint calendar’ varies from church to church (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church won’t use the same calendar of saints), place to place (sometimes at the national level and sometimes at the diocese level), and even different orders within the same church; there’s no reason to believe that that would change in the Far Future, so if you choose to use this model of dating, and associate it with a church and a list of saints, don’t feel constrained to use any particular extant set of saints. You can also use this model without reference to saints (as with the Aslan example); the key is to have enough distinct entities to provide names for the entire year.

Many non-Chinese are familiar with the idea of each year being identified with an animal on the Chinese zodiac (e.g., 2021 was the year of the ox). One can combine this model with an epoch indicator, and arrive at a year designation such as “the third year of the ox of the reign of Ren Song”. This model can also be used for counting years from any arbitrary point; for example, in the Star Trek (original series) episode “The Omega Glory”, Captain Tracy is attempting to convince Captain Kirk to ‘throw in’ with him, and asks a native his age. The native replies that he has ‘seen the year of the red bird forty-two times’.

Jotting #6 briefly described Tzolkin-style calendars, and noted that the two cycles could both be named, instead of having one numbered cycle and one named cycle. One could pair two sets of names in a Tzolkin-like way to come up with names for years, and combine those with an epoch indicator, giving results that would appear similar to the above, but which might have a longer period before restarting (depending on the lengths of the two cycles). The “Dreamspell”, a ‘New Age’ calendar ostensibly based on/inspired by the Mayan Tzolkin calendar, does this, combining two cycles of names to designate each day of its 260-day cycle; additionally, it uses the name from that cycle that a Gregorian year begins on to designate that Gregorian year. (While the illustrative example in Jotting #6 used very short cycles of three and five entries, the Dreamspell, like the actual Tzolkin, used cycles of 13 and 20.)

If you choose to stick with month-date dating, chances are you’ll want to come up with names for your months, and possibly for the days of your week as well. Obviously, your options are essentially unlimited; calendars have used the named of deities, of great leaders, of signs of the zodiac, of characteristics of the season, of visible planets, of animals, or of a mix of any and all of the above; some calendars have resorted to simply numbering the months if no other option seemed suitable. Similar patterns can be found in naming the days of the week.

As I said in the conclusion to Jotting #6, if you’re going to apply this to your own world-building, there’s plenty you can do; you decide the limits. A small caution, however: if you’re expecting your players to actually use the calendar in your games… don’t make it too complex or difficult to manage; that’ll just turn them off, and it won’t be fun.