If you've ever wondered about lunar calendars...

Chinese New Year is often addressed as a festival on the lunar calendar, a calendar based on cycles of the lunar phases. Because there are slightly more than twelve lunations (synodic months) in a solar year, the period of 12 lunar months (354.367 days) is sometimes referred to as a lunar year. A common purely lunar calendar is the Islamic calendar. A feature of the Islamic calendar is that a year is always 12 months, so the months are not linked with the seasons and drift each solar year by 11 to 12 days. It comes back to the position it had in relation to the solar year approximately every 33 Islamic years. It is used mainly for religious purposes, but in Saudi Arabia it is the official calendar. Other lunar calendars often include extra months added occasionally to synchronize it with the solar calendar. 

In fact the traditional Chinese calendar is what the pundits call “lunisolar.” The months are meant to reflect the lunar cycle, but “intercalary” months are added to synchronise the calendar year with the solar year.

Our distant ancestors must have been dyed in wool night-owls. The oldest known lunar calendar was found in Scotland at Warren Field and dates back to around 8,000 BC. In a controversial reading, the marks on a bone baton from c. 25,000 BC is supposed to represent an even earlier example of the lunar calendar. Lunar calendars have a variable number of months in a year. The reason for this is that a solar year is not equal in length to an exact number of lunations, so without the addition of intercalary months the seasons would drift each year. To synchronise the year with the actual seasons, a thirteen-month year is needed every two or three years.

Chinese New Year begins at the new moon that falls between 21 January and 20 February. In the Chinese calendar, winter solstice must occur in the 11th month, which means that Chinese New Year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice (rarely the third if an intercalary month intervenes). Celebrations traditionally run from the evening preceding the first day, to the 15th day of the first calendar month. The first day of the New Year falls on the new moon between 21 January and 20 February. In 2017, the first day of the Chinese New Year is on Saturday, 28 January, initiating another year of the rooster.

Many people inaccurately calculate their Chinese birth-year by converting it from their solar birth-year. As the Chinese New Year starts in late January to mid-February, the previous Chinese year dates through 1 January until that day in the new solar year, remaining unchanged from the previous year. For example, the 1989 year of the Snake began on 6 February 1989. The year 1990 is generally aligned with the year of the Horse. However, the 1989 year of the Snake officially ended on 8 February 1990. This means that anyone born from 1 January to 7 February 1990 was actually born in the year of the Snake rather than the year of the Horse.

We are looking forward to 15 days of celebrating. Don’t even think this is too much for celebrating. Voltaire once addressed the Catholic Calendar as the opportunity to get drunk almost every other day for the higher honour of god. Voltaire knew what he was saying: the Catholic calendar celebrates something or other on more than 180 days. That’s a lot of booze. No wonder the French have become the biggest wine growers in Europe.

So 15 days is not really such a big deal – except your name is Mao Ze Dong and you absolutely have to spoil your people’s fun. Chinese of that generation still remember him having abolished Chinese New Year in China. After the great chairman’s demise, it was one of the most popular measures to reintroduce the spring festival.


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