Calendars are normally based on astronomical events, and the two most important astronomical objects are the sun and the moon. Their cycles are very important in the construction and understanding of calendars.
Our concept of a year is based on the earth’s motion around the sun. The time from one fixed point, such as a solstice or equinox, to the next is called a tropical year. Its length is currently 365.242190 days, but it varies. Around 1900 its length was 365.242196 days, and around 2100 it will be 365.242184 days. (This definition of the tropical year is not quite accurate, see the section about equinoxes and solstices below for more details.)
Our concept of a month is based on the moon’s motion around the earth, although this connection has been broken in the calendar commonly used now. The time from one new moon to the next is called a synodic month, and its length is currently 29.5305889 days, but it varies. Around 1900 its length was 29.5305886 days, and around 2100 it will be 29.5305891 days.
Note that these numbers are averages. The actual length of a particular year may vary by several minutes due to the influence of the gravitational force from other planets. Similarly, the time between two new moons may vary by several hours due to a number of factors, including changes in the gravitational force from the sun, and the moon’s orbital inclination.
It is unfortunate that the length of the tropical year is not a multiple of the length of the synodic month. This means that with 12 months per year, the relationship between our month and the moon cannot be maintained.
However, 19 tropical years is 234.997 synodic months, which is very close to an integer. So every 19 years the phases of the moon fall on the same dates (if it were not for the skewness introduced by leap years). 19 years is called a Metonic cycle (after Meton, an astronomer from Athens in the 5th century BC).
So, to summarise: There are three important numbers to note:
A tropical year is 365.24219 days.
A synodic month is 29.53059 days.
19 tropical years is close to an integral number of synodic months.
The Christian calendar is based on the motion of the earth around the sun, while the months retain no connection with the motion of the moon.
On the other hand, the Islamic calendar is based on the motion of the moon, while the year has no connection with the motion of the earth around the sun.
Finally, the Hebrew calendar combines both, in that its years are linked to the motion of the earth around the sun, and its months are linked to the motion of the moon.
Equinoxes and solstices are frequently used as anchor points for calendars. For people in the northern hemisphere:
- Winter solstice is the time in December when the sun reaches its southernmost declination. At this time we have the shortest day. The date is near 21 December.
- Summer solstice is the time in June when the sun reaches its northernmost declination. At this time we have the longest day. The date is near 21 June.
- Vernal equinox is the time in March when the sun passes the equator moving from the southern to the northern hemisphere. Day and night have approximately the same length. The date is near 20 March.
- Autumnal equinox is the time in September when the sun passes the equator moving from the northern to the southern hemisphere. Day and night have approximately the same length. The date is near 22 September.
For people in the southern hemisphere, winter solstice occurs in June, vernal equinox in September, etc.
The astronomical “tropical year” is frequently defined as the time between, say, two vernal equinoxes, but this is not completely accurate. Currently the time between two vernal equinoxes is slightly greater than the tropical year. The reason is that the earth’s position in its orbit at the time of solstices and equinoxes shifts slightly each year (taking approximately 21,000 years to move all the way around the orbit). This gradual change, called “precession”, combined with the fact that the earth’s orbit is not completely circular, causes the equinoxes and solstices to shift with respect to each other.
The astronomer’s mean tropical year is really a somewhat artificial average of the period between the time when the sun is in any given position in the sky with respect to the equinoxes and the next time the sun is in the same position.
You can find dates and times for equinoxes and solstices at the US Naval Oceanographic Portal.
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