Global Business Basics

Dec. 21, 2004
The New Year is a good time to review the world's many calendars.

As 2000 rapidly approaches we continue to hear about the Y2K bug. Predictions range from "no problems" (at least in North America and Europe) to complete disaster, with power grids failing and airplanes falling out of the sky. One thing is certain, however: The Y2K problem is a function of computer programmers' Western point of view. There are many other ways of counting the years besides the Gregorian calendar used in the Western world. If the programmers had considered them and made allowances for their existence, they would have needed to add more data to their programs -- not just the missing two digits that are causing the Y2K bug, but some letter designation to differentiate the Gregorian calendar from other ones. Use of the Gregorian calendar predominates in North and South America, Europe, and Australia. Yet this calendar -- commonly referred to as the "Western" calendar -- is not the only acceptable way to count the years. It is not necessarily even the best way to measure time. And, although is the calendar most often used in the modern industrialized world, the executive doing business on a global basis needs to be aware of others that are currently in use. There are many ways to categorize the world's different calendars. Let's divide them into what we'll call solar and nonsolar calendars. Solar calendars, such as the Gregorian calendar, measure the time it takes the Earth to go around the sun, which comes to an average of 365.2422 days per year. This is usually rounded off to 365 days, with devices such as leap years to even things out. Nonsolar calendars include lunar calendars, which are humankind's oldest known method for determining the year. In a lunar calendar, each month is about equal to one lunar cycle. Each month usually begins when the new moon is sighted. This makes lunar calendars very convenient for preliterate societies; no written calendar needs to be consulted, since the approximate date can be determined whenever the moon is visible. But a standard lunar year is about 11 days shorter than a solar year. Various methods have been used to keep lunar and solar year in relative synchronization. Such calendars, which combine elements of both lunar and solar calendars, are called lunisolar calendars. The Muslim calendar is a lunar calendar. Since a lunar year is much shorter than a solar year, it falls completely out of synchronization with the Western calendar. In relation to the Gregorian calendar, Muslim holidays generally advance about 11 days each year. Let's take the Islamic month of Ramadan as an example. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim year. Observant adult Muslims fast (health permitting) from dawn to dusk during the entire month of Ramadan. This proscription is not limited to food: A participating Muslim must abstain during daylight hours from food, drink, tobacco and sexual activity. In 1999 the month of Ramadan begins on Dec. 9. Next year it will begin on Nov. 27 -- 12 days sooner by our calendar. Friday is the holiest day of the week in Islam. In many (but not all) countries with Muslim majorities, Friday is the day of rest, and the workweek starts on Saturday. The Hebrew calendar was originally a lunar calendar. In an attempt to keep it in synch with the solar year, the Hebrews adopted what is now called the Metonic cycle in the 4th century A.D. This system, still in use today, mandates the use of 19-year cycles. Accordingly, additional months are added to the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years of each cycle in the Hebrew calendar. Neither truly lunar nor fully solar, today's Hebrew system is designated as a lunisolar calendar. The variation between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars is about a month. Thus, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) will generally fall between mid-September and mid-October. The Jewish Festival of Lights (Chanukah) usually occurs in December. For non-Jews, the most important thing to remember is the observance of the Sabbath, the day of rest. By the Western calendar each Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. In Israel, where the Hebrew calendar is used, Sunday is the start of the workweek, and most people take Friday and Saturday off. Just because other countries adopt a solar calendar doesn't mean that they use it in the same way we do in the West. For example, the Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873 during the Meiji Westernization. They now use Western months and days of the week (although they have given Japanese names to them), and have a workweek that corresponds to the our Monday through Friday week. The difference is in how the Japanese measure their eras -- in other words, what year is it? Japanese eras are calculated according to the reign of Japanese emperors. The previous emperor, Hirohito, came to power in 1926 and reigned until his death in 1989. His long reign is referred to as the Showa era (the word showa means "shining peace" -- an ironic choice for an Emperor whose reign included the Second World War). The first year of Hirohito's reign was Showa 1, the second Showa 2, and so on. These years begin on the Western calendar date; Hirohito's final year, Showa 64, began on Jan. 1,1989. The current emperor, Akihito, began his reign in 1989 after the death of his father (although his official coronation did not take place until later). His reign is known as the Heisei era; heisei means "clarity and harmony." The Gregorian year 1990 was Heisei 1, 1991 was Heisei 2, and so on. So, when we celebrate the start of our year A.D. 2000, the Japanese will celebrate the start of Heisei 10. By the way, we use the initials A.D. to stand for anno Domini, which means "the year of our Lord." In formal usage these initials go before the date. However, in practice, they now often follow the date, as do the initials B.C. It should not be surprising that many non-Christians do not like to use the Christian notations B.C. and A.D. Consequently, the initials C.E. for Common Era and B.C.E. for Before Common Era have been adopted by many. They are usually found following the date. All of these are initials, and each letter should be followed by a period, but some writers prefer to delete the periods. Finally, there is another reason to replace A.D. with C.E.: There are some places in which A.D. refers to a different year. The Coptic Christians of Egypt retain the original meaning of the abbreviation A.D., which originally stood for anno Diocletiani, or "the year of Diocletian." Diocletian was a Roman emperor who ordered the last major Roman persecution of Christians. Diocletian took office in the Gregorian year A.D. 284. The Coptic Christians of Egypt prefer to commemorate their martyrs by using the Diocletian era. Since this era begins at the Diocletian's ascension, their Coptic calendar is 284 years behind the Gregorian calendar. So, while the West is celebrating Jan. 1 of the year 2000 C.E., China will celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon (year 4698 in the Chinese Lunar Calendar) on Feb. 15, Coptic Christians will count the year A.D. 1716, and Muslims will mark Apr. 6 as the first full day of the year 1421 on the Islamic calendar. No matter how you count the years, we wish you the best of luck in the next one.

Terri Morrison and Wayne A. Conaway are the coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries, Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America, and their newest book: The 1999 World Holiday and Time Zone Guide. For further information about Getting Through Customs' seminars, online database, and books, phone 610/725-1040 or fax 610/725-1074. E-mail: [email protected]. Mail: Box 136, Newtown Square, Pa., 19073. Enter their Web site book contest at

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