Happy Arbitrary Date!

- by Elaine Isaak

For many people around the world, today is New Year’s Eve, and a particularly special one because tomorrow will be the start of a whole new decade.  However, the calendar is a sort of common delusion:  a means of organizing time for the convenience of all concerned that has become codified into our consciousness as if it were carved in stone, thanks to the intervention of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582–presumably after missing another holiday party.  It was preceded by the Julian Calendar, by which Julius Caesar had set January 1 as the first of the year, but in the time between these gentlemen, the New Year was marked from one of the important feast days:  often Christmas, or Easter.  But the British Parliament until 1700 started the year at March 1.  The Jewish and Muslim calendars exist alongside the Gregorian, as does the Lunar calendar of the orient which will shortly welcome us into the Year of the Tiger.

It’s all very confusing, but thankfully, it’s not anything to worry about, right?  It is if you’re a writer!   Authors of fantasy and history cannot afford to take for granted many of the simple things that other people accept every day.The sloppy writer of a historical novel would assume that the denizens of his or her chosen period celebrated the same dates and festivals we recognize today.  In fact, aside from the mere confusion of dates, many feast days had quite different significance in past times.  For much of the Christian era, Christmas itself vacillated between an occasion for drunken feasting (perhaps harking back to earlier pagan winter celebrations) and a highly solemn religious occasion, with the Feast of the Epiphany being the time for gifts and family.  Charles Dickens is actually credited with reviving Christmas in an era when its importance had ebbed.  Historical novelists beware!

But for the fantasy writer to be bound by current ideas of the calendar is even more deadly.  It is easy in any aspect of fantasy world building to base some aspect of one’s invented culture on something familiar, but it means that a rich opportunity is being ignored.  What are the exciting and unique aspects of your world?  What lead you to want to write about it?  And how can you express that uniqueness through every detail?

Do you need to invent a calendar, complete with different names for months and a different rotational period for each of your moons?  Some authors do.  The question is, will your book be the richer for it?  Tolkien kept track of the phases of the moon in the Lord of the Rings, to be sure they would be right.  And the special dates he mentions in his work tend to be, as the pagan holidays are, celestial in nature:  midsummer’s eve, for instance.  Or they are from the mythology and history of his own creations:  Durin’s Day.

Each of these mentions reinforces the idea that you have not only left the world as we know it, but have entered another, just as complete and real as the one you’ve left behind.  Your created culture might revere the date of an important battle or the rising of a patron constellation over a certain mountain peak, and, just like that, your reader is transported out of space. . . and time.

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