Vol. XXV No. 11 — November 1947

Masonic Calendar

At one time doubtless a matter of much importance, the system by which Masonry and Masons date their events now belongs more to the mythology of the Craft than to its practice.

Whoever they were who established the various dates for chronicling Masonic events were not, perhaps, more unscientific than those wise men who struggled with the calendar during many years — a struggle, by the way, on the outcome of which the whole world is not yet agreed. That we keep the old chronology in modern Masonic documents (as in charters) is more our loving tribute to that which is old because it is old, than any modern belief in the inherent rightness of our dates.

Fully to understand this by-path into Masonic lore, it is necessary to know something of how our modern calendar came to be. The following is abstracted from Young’s Manual of Astronomy; it is fitting that Freemasonry, which makes so much of geometry and astronomy in the Fellowcraft Degree, should explain her own mysteries by the calculations of stargazers!

The natural units of time are the day, month, and year. The day is too short for convenience in dealing with long periods; and the same is true of the month, so that for chronological purposes the tropical year — the year of the seasons — is usually employed. Many religious observances connected with the changes of the moon, caused a long struggle to reconcile the month with the year. Since the two are incommensurable, the modern calendar disregards the moon.

Anciently the calendar was dominated by the priesthood and was predominantly lunar, the seasons being disregarded or kept roughly in place by the occasional dropping of a month. The principal Muslim nations still use twelve lunar months, the year containing alternately 354 and 355 days. In their reckoning, months and religious festivals fall continually in different seasons, and their calendar gains on ours about one year in thirty-three.

Julius Caesar found the Roman Calendar in hopeless confusion. By advice of the astronomer Sosigenes, he established (45 B.C.) the Julian calendar, which is still in use. Adopting 365¼ days as the true length of the year, he ordained that every fourth year should contain 366 days, the extra day being inserted by repeating the sixth day before the calends of March. January 1 became the beginning of his year, which had been in March (as is indicated by the names of some months, as September, the seventh month, etc.)

Caesar renamed the month Quintilis, July, after himself. His successor, Augustus, appropriated Sextilis, calling it August, and to make his month as long as his predecessor’s added to it a day stolen from February.

The true length of the tropical year is not 365¼ days, but 365/5h/48m/45.5s leaving a difference of 11m/14.5s by which the Julian year is too long. This amounts to a little more than three days in four hundred years. The Julian calendar thus dates the vernal equinox earlier and earlier. In 1582 it had fallen back to the 11th of March instead of occurring on the 21st, as it did at the time of the Council of Nice, A.D. 325. Pope Gregory, therefore, by advice of the astronomer Clavius, ordered the calendar corrected by dropping ten days, so that the day following Oct. 4, 1582, should be called the 15th instead of the 5th; and further to prevent any flume & solacement of the equinox, he decreed that thereafter only such century years should be leap-years as are divisible by 400.

(Thus, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2100, and so on, are not leap-years, while 1600 and 2000 are.)

The change was adopted by all Catholic countries, but the Greek Church and most Protestant nations refused to recognizes the Pope’s authority. It was, finally, adopted in England by an act of Parliament, passed in 1751, providing that the year 1752 should begin on January 1 (instead of March 25, as had long been the rule in England) and that the day following Sept. 2, 1752, should be reckoned as the 14th instead of the 3d, thus dropping eleven days.

The change was opposed by many, and there were riots in the country, especially at Bristol, where several persons were killed. The cry was, “Give us back our fortnight,” by those who believed they had been robbed of eleven days, although the act of Parliament was framed to prevent injustice in the collection of interest, payment of rents, etc.

Neither the Gregorian nor the Julian calendars say anything about “the beginning” — they are content to date Anno Domini — so many years after the birth of Jesus Christ. But others have computed many dates as that of Creation. Such as Scaliger, 3950 B.C.; Petavius, 3984 B.C.; Ricciola, 4063 B.C.; Eusebius, 5200 B.C.; Alphonsine Tables, 6934 B.C. There is no evidence to show that operative masons ever adopted a given date, or ever found use for one; moreover they had scarcely any conception of a calendar, but fixed dates by reference to Saints’ Days, Church festivals, the reign of Kings, and memorable local events — a flood, a fire, a battle, etc.

But Freemasonry was not content with any of these chronologies. She dates her events Anno Lucis, — so many years “After Light,” her words for “From the Beginning,” or “the Creation of the world.”

This idea seems to have started with James Anderson (who published the first Constitutions in 1723, and again in 1738), The title page of his edition of the first edition is dated as follows:

In the year of Masonry 5723
Anno Domini 1723

An explanation of this is furnished in a footnote in the 1738 edition of his Constitutions, page 2, here literally reproduced:

The first Christians computed their Times as the Nations did among whom They lived till A.D. 532, when Dionysius Exiguus, a Roman Abbot, taught them first to compute from the Birth of Christ; he lost 3 Years or began the Christian Era 4 Years later than just. Therefore, tho’ according to the Hebrew Chronology of the Old Testament and other good vouchers, Christ was truly born in some Month of the Year of the World or A.M. 4000. Yet these 4 Years added made . . . 4004. Not before the Birth of Christ, but before the Christian Era, viz. . . . 1737. For the true Anno Domini or Year after Christ’s birth is. . . 1740. But the Masons being used to compute by the Vulgar Anno Domini or Christian Era 1737 and adding to it not 4004, as it ought but the strict Years before Christ’s birth, viz. . . . 4000. They usually call this the year of Masonry . . . 5737. Instead of the accurate Year 5740 and we must keep to the Vulgar Computation.

The A.M. or Anno Mundi is the same followed by Usher and Prideaux, etc., and so these letters A.M. signify Anno Mundi or Year of the World: and here B.C. is not Before Christ but Before the Christian Era.

The indispensable Mackey says that Anno Lucis, the “Year of Light” is the epoch used in Masonic documents of the Symbolic Degrees. This era is calculated from the creation of the world, and is obtained by adding four thousand to the current year, on the supposition that Christ was four thousand years after the creation of the world. But the chronology of Archbishop Ussher, which has been adopted as the Bible chronology in the authorized version, places the birth of Christ in the year 4004 after the creation. According to this calculation, the Masonic date for the "Year of Light” is four years short of the true date, and the year of the lodge 1874, which in Masonic documents is 5874, should correctly be 5878. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Freemasons in the beginning of the nineteenth century used this Ussherian era, and the Supreme Council at Charleston dated its first circular, issued in 1802, as 5806. Dalcho (Ahiman Rezon, 2nd ed., p. 37) says: “If Masons are determined to fix the origin of their order at the time of creation, they should agree among themselves at what time before Christ to place that epoch. At that agreement they have now arrived. Whatever differences may have once existed, there is now a general consent to adopt the theory that the world was created 4000 B.C. The error is too unimportant, and the practice too universal, to expect that it will ever be corrected.”

It is a little difficult to believe that the great Masonic scholar and jurist wrote the above without his tongue in his cheek; he was far too intelligent and highly educated really to believe that creation occurred within five or six thousand years of his own life. Geologists use astronomical figures in reading the story of the earth from its strata and astronomers are even larger in their pronouncements of how long ago it was when the earth originated. It makes no difference whether they contend our earth is a piece of the sun, struck from that orb by a passing star, or a solidification of a mass of meteorites, or a condensation from an incredibly enormous mass of gas. However the earth first became into being, it was originated millions if not billions of years ago, so great a stretch of time that Masonry’s estimate of creation 5947 years ago seems shrinkingly modest!

However that may be, to find the Masonic date or the date A.L. corresponding to the civil date, (the date A.D.) add 4000 to the Christian Era — 1947 becomes 5947. In the Scottish Rite, Masons, desiring to date something according to its chronology, also go back to the creation, but use the Jewish system; in the Scottish Rite, 1947 becomes A.M. - Anno Mundi, (year of the world) 5707.

Royal Arch Masonry, not to be outdone, has its own special system; R.A.M. dates are based upon the time when Zerrubbabel began to build the second Temple, which was 530 years B.C. 1947, therefore, for Companions of the Royal Arch, is 1947 plus 530 or A.I. (Anno Inventionis, or Year of Discovery) 2477.

The Cryptic Rite (Royal and Select Masters) has its own Chronology and denominates its years as A.DEP. — for Anno Depositionis, Year of the Deposit — a date going back to the completion of the Temple. This is supposed to be 1000 B.C.; therefore, Cryptic dates are obtained by adding 1000 to the common date, 1947 becoming A.DEP. 2947.

Knights Templar have determined that their order began in A.D. 1118; they make their dates A.O. — Anno Ordinis, or Year of the Order — by subtracting rn8 from the ordinary date. Thus 1947 becomes A.o. 829.

The beginning of the year, like the beginning of a day, is partly geographical, partly conventional. The secular year has commenced January the first since the time of Caesar. It commences at any particular place at a fraction of a second after midnight December 31 of the previous year. French Masons begin their Masonic year on the first of March. The Hindu year begins in April. The first Hebrew month began with the new moon in September, and the A.A.S.R., also begin their year at that time.

As for the special days in Masonry — St. John’s Day in Summer and St. John’s day in Winter — who shall say how or when they came into Freemasonry? It was the custom of the guilds of the Middle Ages to dedicate their crafts to a saint (or two or more). Doubtless the guilds of Masons would have been criticized by their fellows had they not done likewise. But just why some man or men picked the Sts. John is a mystery yet to be solved.

Of course there were advantages; one St. John’s Day is nearly the longest, the other nearly the shortest day in the year. Both are thus excellent excuses for celebrations; one comes nearly at Christmas and might have been a good reason for prolonging the Christmas festivities. Inasmuch as all contracts for work in early days specified the holidays the Craft were to have and whither workmen were paid for or not, the two St. John’s Days had the advantage of being evenly spaced throughout the year, so the builders were sure of one extra holiday in summer and one in winter.

But all of this is speculation; no one really knows just how or why the two Johns became associated with the Ancient Craft. What seems possible, if not probable, is that the two Days, long before Freemasonry was thought of, were those of beginning (when the sun was just turning towards the northern swing) and of fruition, when the sun was at its greatest glory in summer, and that it was the appropriateness of the Days to Masonic building — beginning and completion — rather than the two Johns and their association with those Days, which dictated the choice of the unknown brethren who first associated the holy men with Freemasonry. (See Short Talk Bulletin, December 1933, “Sts. Johns’ Days”)

Such an excursion as this into the odd and the curious may be excused far less by the importance of the subject or the accuracy of the figures compiled by men long dead, than by the delightful touch with the ancient, the bond with antiquity, the mystic tie connecting us in this “Year of Light, 5947 with the brethren of far away and long ago!

The Masonic Service Association of North America