Monday, 31 December 2018

On Days, Months and Names

A close-up view of a calendar, showing the number of each month as well as its name in six languages, and the days of the month corresponding to days of the week with their English names. Each week is also sequentially numbered. The month of September is fully visible, while October and November are visible in part.
Early Friends quickly shed the common names for days of the week and months of the year, instead referring to them by number. Sunday was “first day”, Tuesday “third day”, and so on. Likewise, July became “seventh month”, November “eleventh month”… you get the idea.
The usual explanation given for this is that the names themselves were of pagan – that is, pre-Christian – origin, giving regard to, variously, Germanic deities (like Woden and Thor), heavenly bodies (like the Sun and Moon), Roman deities (like Janus and Mars), and deified Roman “emperors” (Julius for Julius Caesar, not technically an emperor, and Augustus for his heir, generally recognised as the first emperor). I suspect the last four months, as named in English, would meet with early Friends' approval – except they were misnamed, and naming them in English is much more in line with plain speaking. It would be interesting do delve into early Quaker sources and try to get to the bottom of the practice, but for now we will accept the usual explanation as enough to be getting on with.
Now, some Friends and Meetings still follow this tradition, at least when dealing with other Friends. What we in Britain typically call “Children's Meeting” is known in many North American Meetings as “First Day School”, though the amount of religious instruction, or any sort of instruction, is variable whichever name it is known by. It is tempting to be sidetracked into giving my view of the appropriateness of religious instruction for Quakers, at least in the liberal tradition, but that shall have to wait for another post. In Britain, it is unusual to find a Friend, and even more unusual to find a Meeting, where there is still an insistence on these “plain names” for the days and months. There's an obvious pressure against doing so, especially when one must interact with those who use the conventional, secular, “worldly” names.
Today, many liberal Meetings are accepting of a wide range of views and beliefs, including pagan. There would seem to be no religious pressure to throw off these profane names. Also, the vast majority of the Christian world seems to see no problem with the origin of the names, and insisting on having a problem with them starts to just seem like you are being awkward.
Of course, I'm sure some stick to them for a similar reason to some sticking to the use of the old T-form second person pronouns (“thee” and “thou”, or sometimes just “thee”). That would be the desire to cleave to the traditions of your own community, however little it might be. Of course, sometimes it might also be bloody mindedness, and sometimes it's a sincere agreement with the principle of the thing, acting out of conscience. There's also clearly a proportion of cases where it is a matter of “we are are Quakers, let us do things in a particular Quakerly way”, a way to set oneself apart and, dare I say it, to feel superior.
I'm not keen on the idea of Friends using particular distinctive language just because we always have, or just to set ourselves apart. What sets us apart from “the World” should be our actions, our practices, our carriage – our being “patterns and examples”. Not us using strange words where there are perfectly good everyday words. Doing things a certain way just because we always have is very much a matter of “empty forms”. So, is there any other reason, a reason that passes muster by my personal standards, for us to use these historic terms?
We have an example of a far greater population than that of Quakers renaming their days and months, well into the modern era. Revolutionary France introduced the Republican Calendar, which was partly a component of their efforts towards decimalisation (with the seven-day week replaced with a ten-day décade), and partly an effort to reduce the influence of religion in public life, and remove any royalist hangovers. The days of the décade were simply numbered, albeit not with everyday number words – the first day of the décade was primidi, the fifth quintidi, and so on. The months (still twelve of them, but they all had thirty days) were named for the weather or agricultural activities around Paris. In an attempt to further erode the influence of the church, they also provided an alternative to the calendar of saints, assigning each day of the year either an animal (every quintidi), an agricultural tool (every décadi), a plant/fruit/vegetable/flower (every other day, except in the month of Nivôse, which started around the winter solstice), or a mineral (every other day in Nivôse). Initially, Christmas fell on Chien (dog), quintidi 5 Nivôse (it drifted away due to the calendar's idiosyncratic method of handling leap years).
A further five days, not having days of the décade or belonging to any month, were included at the end of the year as a series of five national holidays. Where an extra day was needed to keep in line with the autumn equinox, the day on which the year must begin, a sixth such day was added. These days each celebrated a different characteristic that republicans thought well of: virtue, talent, labour, convictions, honours (in the sense of awards), and in leap years, the revolution itself.
Now, I think even the staunchest adherent of the idea of separating ourselves from the world, at least symbolically, would think twice about Quakers adopting an entirely separate calendar. Short of establishing an exclusive colony – and the most well-known Quaker colony was quite deliberately not exclusive. Even then, even were such a colony to have remarkably little contact with the rest of the world, we must interact with people who are using the Gregorian calendar, and thus we save ourselves a lot of bother by not using any alternative, but staying with the civic standard. The republican government of France faced not only the barrier to adoption of international trade and communication, but also the fact that most of the population didn't see the point in changing the calendar, and they wanted to keep the seven day week so the rest-day corresponded with the day they had their main religious observances. Many labourers also preferred one rest day per seven days, rather than one and a half per ten days (every quintidi was supposed to be a half-day, and every décadi a rest day). The calendar did outlast the first French Republic, in name as well as in form, but not by long, and it had not been enthusiastically adopted at any point. The décade was abandoned somewhat earlier.
(It was restored for a matter of days under the Paris Commune of 1871, but that hardly bears notice.)
So is there any good reason to maintain, or restore, the practice of Quakers numbering the days and the months? Is it somehow more plain to use numbers, rather than recognisable names? Is there anything objectionable about the names?
I cannot say that it is more plain, in my own conscience, than the names that are customary in wider society. To speak plainly is to be easily understood, speaking without ostentation or beating about the bush. I struggle with it sometimes myself, as I am somewhat given to florid language. The use of “thee” and “thou” by early Friends was about equality as much as plainness, but it was avoiding the ostentation of referring to someone in the plural in order to show respect. The fact that the t-form, the familiar singular, was already falling out of use in much of England complicates matters, though our Religious Society was born in the north of England, where the t-form persisted in some places, among some people, well into the 20th century. Speaking in a way that is unlikely to be understood by those outside one's in-group is not speaking plainly; it is frank jargon.
Using numbers for months would be less confusing than for days of the week, of course, as people generally are used to that nowadays, what with our short formats for writing dates (even if we might disagree, between countries, on the exact format). The big problem with numbering days of the week is that you will have trouble getting agreement on which day is which. When Friends were first establishing their ideas, everyone knew that Sunday was the first day of the week. Now, for a lot of us, we think of Monday as the first day of the week, as it is when the cycle of the week begins; Sunday is part of the weekend, not the weekstart. Not only would we cause people to have to mentally count out the days, they won't even know when to count from.
Likewise, I see nothing objectionable in the names themselves, whatever their origin. Words are not forever tied to their linguistic roots, and people do not think of Woden when they speak of Wednesday. In my experience, in English, no-one really things of the root of any of them except Sunday, which is entirely obvious and unavoidable in its origin. But no-one really cares.
There is one argument that I can see, and that actually stems from our testimony concerning times and seasons. Every day is equal, spiritually speaking. There is so significance to days of the week except that which we give them, and we should avoid giving them any except that which arises from administrative concerns. Indeed, I consider it unfortunate that we routinely hold our Meetings for Worship on Sundays, though the general expectation that religious observances happen on Sundays do make it convenient. I understand that Sikhs in culturally-Christian countries generally hold their most significant Gurdwara services on a Sunday for similar reasons.
What can we do to rob the days of the week of their significance? I don't know. Frankly, I don't know that the possibility gives a good enough reasons, but perhaps the abandonment of the familiar names might do something in that direction.
It's a lot of confusion to be dealt with in the hope of that outcome, though.
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