We’ve been measuring time since the year dot. Literally. Did you know that the earliest known lunar calendar was found at Warren Field in Scotland dating from around 8000 BC? While clocks count time’s passage, calendars organise its chunks into days, months or years. And in today’s world of busy diaries and digital devices it’s easy to understand why we manage our schedules to the minute. But why are we so obsessed with historic points in time? Does it really matter whether a war was won on one day or the next? If a book was launched this month or last? Or if a famous person was born one or other side of midnight?
Significant achievements are to be lauded, but they are seldom the outcome of one day’s work
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India is no stranger to historic moments. A pupil of Gandhi, he navigated his nation to independence on August 15, 1947. He once famously observed, “Time is not measured by the passing of years but by what one does, what one feels, and what one achieves.” Significant achievements are to be lauded, but they are seldom the outcome of one day’s work: the Indian Independence Movement was established long before Nehru was born and took ninety years to achieve its goal. For such momentous occasions, is a single date in history big enough to represent generations of struggle?
Perhaps that’s why we also remember years, decades, centuries and even millennia: the Great Depression, the Georgian period, the Zhou Dynasty to name a few. But remembering longer periods doesn’t evoke the same emotion as a single date. A date is easily quantifiable. If universal, we can join in commemorating or celebrating an experience with others. If local, we can remember in solitude or share our emotions with loved ones. Regardless, a ritual takes place in the anticipation, preparation and remembrance of that date.
Are some dates more equal than others?
World awareness days are increasingly popular because they encourage a universal event, a coming together of people united in a single cause. Human Rights Day is celebrated on December 10 because it was the date in 1948 when the newly established UN globally enunciated human rights. But there are many more awareness days that pick a date for other reasons: World Pi Day is on March 14 because 3, 1 and 4 are the first three digits of π, the numbers more symbolic than anything else. But with so many dates to remember, how do we keep track? And are some dates more equal than others?
On the same date that India declared independence, the Basques defeated Charlemagne’s army (778); and the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottomans (1461). All important in their own right, yet which one gets the prize for universal remembrance? Or is August 15 more significant because it captures a wider audience, each group remembering their own historic event?
And here’s the funny thing about historical dates: they are remembered because they are somehow relevant today or because they stand for an ideal we strive towards in the future. As soon as a historical date loses relevance, it is buried beneath layers of history books, dormant until another cause or movement or history buff digs into the past.
If you’re a fan of the past, try this: lookup what happened today in history (see links below) and choose a lesser known event that piques your interest. Read up about it, write a short story or talk about it over coffee with a friend, and ponder its relevance to you today or for future generations.
History | History Net | Britannica | On This Day | The People History |