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World: Which Is The True Third Millennium Year, 2000 Or 2001?

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Which is the real millennium year, the outgoing 2000 or the incoming 2001? Despite the worldwide celebrations last January 1, the controversy over the beginning of the true Third Millennium is far from over. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc presents the arguments on both sides.

Prague, 28 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- This time last year, mankind was preparing for the first global party in history, in honor of what the majority of the world's people called the beginning of the Third Millennium.

The run-up to January 1, 2000, was a unique period, perhaps the first time in recorded history that there had been general international accord on dates and a universal calendar. Yet historic disagreement persisted on one point, regarded by some as a simple technicality but considered quite important by a sizeable minority. The minority says the Third Millennium will actually begin on Monday -- January 1, 2001.

Each side in the dispute over which is the true Third Millennium year offers strong arguments. And each refers back to the sixth century after the birth of Jesus Christ as the basis for its case.

In sixth-century Europe, according to historians, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, then Pope John, asked a monk named Dionysus Exiguus [Denis the Short] to calculate the date for Easter, believed by most Christians to be the date of Christ's resurrection. Easter can occur any time between March 22 and April 25. It falls on the first Sunday after the full moon that appears on or nearest to the spring equinox -- one of the two days in the year when day and night are exactly the same length.

Dionysus calculated the year of Christ's birth and then suggested that all subsequent years be numbered consecutively from that date and be designated AD -- for Anno Domini, or Year of the Lord -- to signify the Christian era. Later, scholars found Dionysus had erred in his calculations and that Christ's birth had actually taken place from three to six years earlier than the monk believed. But scholarly dissent never had much effect on the development of the Roman Catholic Church's calendar.

In an era when a 12-month period was traditionally referred to as, say, the third or fifth year of a particular monarch, the Catholic Church found Dionysus' suggestion about numbering years consecutively a very practical one. The system was gradually adopted in Christian countries over the next few hundred years.

But calculating a year's real beginning presented another problem. That date was usually settled by local tradition. December 25 was a popular day for the New Year in some places, but so were March 1 and March 25 in others. In Athens, the year began in midsummer, when new officials took office. Still, there were many Christian countries where the now standard January 1 was used.

In the non-Christian world, however, there were further complications. For Jews, the new year comes in September and for Muslims, in July.

Until the late 16th century, the Christian world itself still operated under a lay calendar established during the time of the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. The Roman calendar, however, contained errors which over time created problems that upset the religious calendar, causing Easter to be celebrated too late in the year. So the Catholic Church decided to correct Caesar's calendar.

Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius did most of the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory issued a decree establishing what is known today as the Gregorian Calendar. To correct past errors, the day after Thursday, October 4, became Friday, October 15, and January 1 was formally made the start of the new year. A few more minor adjustments were made, and the result was an extremely accurate calendar.

Roman Catholic countries quickly adopted the Gregorian Calendar, but in other nations it took much longer. The American colonies did not begin using the new calendar until 1752, calling it the "New Style" calendar. Russia didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until after the 1917 revolution, and Greece waited even longer.

Today, almost all the world's nations use the Gregorian Calendar, at least for official purposes. But religious activities may still be guided by other, older calendars. Orthodox Christians in some Eastern European countries continue to observe Christmas according to the so-called "Old Style" calendar.

The current dispute over the true Third Millennium year was prefigured a century ago. At the time, December 1899, Pope Leo, Russia's Czar Nicholas and the influential U.S. daily New York Times all agreed that the 20th century would begin with the year 1901. But Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and a few other important figures publicly disagreed, insisting the 20th century should start in 1900. The New York Times ironically mocked the Kaiser who, it wrote, "must stand in solitary grandeur as the only man of prominence who cannot count up to 100."

But the start of the Third Millennium is by far a more momentous affair than a mere turn of century, as was the case 100 years ago. And that difference is reflected in the extent of today's quarrel.

The overwhelming majority of the globe's population has already accepted 2000 as the beginning of the 21st century and of the Third Millennium. But some respected scientists, scientific works and institutions firmly place the two events on January 1, 2001. Among them are the Encyclopedia Britannica, Webster's third International Dictionary, the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Their strongest argument is that, since there was no year zero, setting the start of the new millennium as January 1, 2000 left the outgoing Second Millennium one year short -- that is, only 999 years old.

One of the most vocal advocates in the 2001 camp is the well-known science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. In 1968, the screen director Stanley Kubrick turned Clarke's book "The Sentinel" into the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," one of the most influential science fiction films of all time. Clarke has always insisted that 2001 was the beginning of the Third Millennium. Earlier this week (Wednesday), he urged the world in a new year's message to celebrate "the real beginning" of the millennium on Monday, January 1. Clarke, who turned 83 last month, said in a statement that what he called "the intelligent minority of this world" will mark January 1, 2001, as the real beginning of the 21 century and the Third Millennium. But he invited those who had celebrated the twin events "a year too soon" to join in the celebrations anyway.

Not only have respectable individuals and institutions been advocating the 2001 cause, but some countries have as well. Early this month, Japan announced that the official beginning of the new century and millennium is January 1, 2001. In Japan last year, millennium fervor was muted in comparison with other countries. But now Tokyo is billing all recent and upcoming important sports, cultural or political events as the "last of the century."

So which is it, 2000 or 2001? The question remains unresolved and will probably diminish in importance as time goes by -- until, of course, the arrival of the Fourth Millennium.