Miles Kington: A right calendrical muddle in the heavens

If something happened before Jesus's birth, you counted backwards. How stupid was that?
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The Independent Online

I think it is about time we paid our first visit of the year to the United Deities, that all-god gathering which sits up in the heavens and surveys poor old humanity as we struggle to look after the planet.

Here are some of the minutes from their most recent meeting.

1. The chairgod hoped he would not be misconstrued if he wished the other gods a Happy New Year. He realised that not everyone used the same dating system, but ...

2. Jove said that all dating systems were lousy. On the other hand, he had once gone on a blind date with a swan, and that had been a lot of fun.

3. The chairgod said that was not the kind of dating system he was talking about.

4. Jove said he fully realised that. It was a joke, dummkopf.

5. The Jewish God said he was amazed to hear Jove using Yiddish expressions. Had he been mixing with some other Jewish god he didn't know about? If so, he would be glad to hear about it, as he was meant to be the only Jewish god, and he would be pleased to hear about the competition.

6. Jove said that he had picked up the expression from some early Germanic gods he had recently met.

7. Nevertheless, said the Jewish god, he was in complete agreement with Jove in that all systems of dating could be very confusing, especially the Christian one.

8. The Christian god asked what was so confusing about it.

9. Oh, for heaven's sake, did he have to explain, wanted to know the Jewish God.

10. You had a situation in which, if something happened after Jesus's birth, the years counted forwards, but if it happened before, the years counted backwards. Backwards! Was that stupid or was that stupid?

11. He challenged the Christian god to name any other system which counted backwards to get a result.

12. Willingly, said the Christian God. When you counted minus numbers, you had to count backwards from nought. When you calculated cold temperatures, you counted backwards from zero. When you ...

13. Mars, the Roman god of war, said that things were much better in the old Roman days. The Romans counted history from the most important event in their history, the founding of Rome. AUC, that was what they called it. Ab Urbe Condita. From the Founding of the City. So 400 AUC was the 400th year of history.

14. In that case, said the Christian God, how did they date things that had happened before the founding of Rome? Did they say AUC Minus One, AUC Minus Two, etc?

15. In the eyes of Rome, said Mars, nothing that happened in pre-Roman times was worth talking about.

16. An unidentified Chinese god said that a lot had been going on in China way before Romulus and Remus had got their act together.

17. Mars said he knew that. But the people in ancient Rome did not know that. As a matter of interest, how did they count years in China?

18. The Chinese god said that the world would know soon enough how the Chinese numbered the years, when China took over from America as top nation. Meanwhile, he had no wish to talk about the New Year, as the Chinese New Year was not until February.

19. Jove inquired which amusing little animal was being celebrated this year by the Chinese.

20. The Chinese god said it would be the Year of the Rooster.

21. Jove said that he could never understand what all these animals meant in the Chinese calendar. Rooster, snake, lizard, rat ... He was not sure where Chinese astrology finished and Chinese cookery started.

22. The Chinese god said that he had no wish to hear Chinese culture being insulted in this way.

23. The chairgod said that he should not mind what Jove said. If he had not been to one of these gods' get-togethers before, he should understand that they habitually took place in a healthy atmosphere of intolerance and rudeness.

More of this tomorrow, I hope.