At midnight on Friday 31st December 1999, billions of people will be celebrating the arrival of the new millennium. Sadly, billions of people will be wrong. Fortunately, most of them will be far too drunk to notice. We are all about to get very excited about the fact that it is two, multiplied by the third power of the number of fingers we have, multiplied by the orbital period of the Earth, since a date which was not the birthday of a man who may not have existed.
This page explores exactly how and why we are about to get it very wrong indeed.
The 21st century does not begin on Saturday 1st January 2000. The 21st century begins on Monday 1st January 2001. Deep down, we all know this to be true. Just as the first century ended in 100 AD, after 100 years, so the 20th century must end with the year 2000. Countless boring old men, with nothing better to do than to write to the letters page of local newspapers, have been trying to remind us of this fact for what feels like years. We have reached the 2000th year of our calendar, and we are about to celebrate the start of the millennial year. Years that have 'always' begun with a '1' are about to start with a '2'. The mileometer of time is about to click over from 1 - - - to 2 - - -. This is indeed something for us to celebrate, but it is not yet the start of the 3rd millennium. Next year, as 2000 turns into 2001, everyone should be only too happy to celebrate the real new century and new millennium properly, as if they'd never made this silly mistake at all at the end of 1999. But for the time being, what better excuse could there be for a huge drunken party two New Years in a row? Raise your glass to the year 2000, and prepare for the whole ridiculous millennium marketing media hype to be repeated all over again in 366 days time.
We are about to celebrate the 2000th Christmas, or we would be if only Christ had been born in the year zero. Unfortunately there was no year zero. Even if there had been, Jesus was already out of nappies well before that. Our calendar, with years counted from the birth of Christ, was first anchored early in the sixth century by a Italian monk called Dionysius (or Denis the Little). Before this, years were counted from the founding of the city of Rome. How Denis fixed the year of Christ's birth is not known, but he was almost certainly completely and utterly wrong. Matthew's Gospel tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod the Great, and it is known that Herod died in 4 BC. Astronomers suggest that Jesus was in fact born in 7 BC, the year of a particularly bright conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Was this the 'Star of Bethlehem'? If the correct date is 7 BC, this would place the 2000th Christmas back in 1993. To add to the confusion, Roman numerals had no figure representing zero. The year 1 BC was followed immediately by the year AD 1, with no year 0 inbetween. This means we have to add one extra year to reach the 2000th Christmas, which would have been in 1994. The millennium has already passed without any of us noticing.
Our year begins in January, but this has not always been the case. Julius Caesar was responsible for moving the start of the year from March to January in 45 BC. This two month shift is the reason why, for example, 'December' means 'tenth month' but is in fact the twelfth month. By the sixth century Europe's New Year celebrations had become so rowdy that Church leaders shifted the start of the year back to the spring. For the next 1000 years every year began on 25 March. It was only in the 16th century, by order of the Pope, that most European countries reverted to 1 January. We in Protestant Britain held out until 1752. The 20th century may have begun in January, but the year 1000 began on 25 March 1000. This millennium should therefore end in March rather than in December. To complicate matters even further, 25 December is almost certainly not the correct date on which Jesus was born. Church leaders originally placed the Christmas celebrations in December to provide stiff competition for the more popular pagan winter solstice festival. Certainly Jesus never comes across as your typical Capricorn. Our New Year falls exactly a week after Christmas Day, on the feast of the Circumcision of the baby Jesus - an event for some reason never included in nativity plays.
Julius Caesar is also the man responsible for the introduction of the leap year. The Earth takes about 365¼ days to orbit the Sun, and by 45 BC these quarter days had built up sufficiently to place the calendar completely out of touch with the seasons. By including an extra day every four years, the pattern of the seasons was restored ...nearly. The Earth in fact takes 365.24219 days to orbit the Sun. This is a tiny difference from 365¼ but enough to put Caesar's calendar out by one day every 128 years. By 1582 this difference had amounted to 10 days, so Pope Gregory XIII decreed that these days be dropped from the calendar. In Britain, we waited until 1752, by which time 11 days had to be lost. There were riots in the streets as people felt their lives had been shortened. Pope Gregory also decreed that only those century years divisible by 400 would be leap years, Thus 1600 and 2000 are leap years, while 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not. So, the first millennium (1-1000 AD) included 250 leap years, whereas the second (1001-2000) has had only 248. There were also 11 days missing in 1752, so the second millennium has been a total of 13 days shorter than the first. To keep our millennia of equal length, we should be celebrating New Year's Day on 14 January, 13 days 'late'.
At what hour does the new millennium really begin? Most countries will be celebrating at midnight, local time. Because of world time zones, revellers in New Zealand will be celebrating at 11am GMT on our New Year's Eve, with other countries joining in hourly, right up to Samoa at 11 am GMT on 1 January. Surely not everybody can be celebrating the millennium at exactly the right moment. It was the advent of long distance travel in the 18th century that first created the need for an international time standard. An international conference in Washington DC in 1884 selected Greenwich as Longitude 0°, the point from which all world time would be measured. Therefore each day on Earth officially starts and finishes at 00:00 GMT. Thus, thanks to a decision made in the golden age of the British Empire, we in the UK will be one of the few countries to enter the new millennium at the right moment. France, Germany, USA, Japan - all will be celebrating at the wrong time, which serves them right for being foreign. A plan to introduce Double British Summer Time in England has recently been abandoned. Putting our clocks forward for 1 hour extra all year long might have cut down on winter road accidents. However, we would also have entered the next millennium an hour early, at 01:00 BST.
Up to the mid 19th century, people took their local time from the Sun. When the sun was overhead in your town, that was exactly 12 noon. In a different town just 10 miles to the West the local noon would be one minute later than yours. For example, when it was 12 noon in Greenwich it was already 12:05 in Ipswich, but only 11:44 in Plymouth. In those days, few people travelled very far from their homes, so local time differences caused few problems. However, with the coming of the railways, train timetables soon became so confusing that in 1880 the whole of Britain was forced to adopt GMT - local time at Greenwich. The new millennium officially begins when the Sun crosses the Greenwich meridian. Only people living right on the line of 0° longitude will be celebrating the millennium at exactly the right moment. Towns to be fortunate in this respect include London, Peacehaven, Cleethorpes and Benidorm. In the year 1000, had anybody stayed up late to see in the new millennium, it would have started not at 00:00 GMT but at local midnight. To celebrate exactly 1000 years since that time, those of us living east or west of the Greenwich meridian should officially celebrate this local midnight. In Ipswich this means 5 minutes 'early' at 23:55 GMT, and in Plymouth 00:16 GMT, 16 minutes 'late'.
The Earth is slowing down. Very slowly admittedly, but enough for scientists with atomic clocks to notice. Every so often these scientists insert a 'leap second' to allow the Earth to catch up with GMT. The first leap second was added at midnight on 30 June 1972, and the most recent at midnight on 31 December 1998. There will not, however, be a leap second added this New Year's Eve. A total of 22 leap seconds have been added since 1972, meaning that the millennium will arrive 22 seconds later than one might have predicted 30 years ago.
The 'Millennium' is merely a fleeting fraction of a second as one 1000 years passes into the next. It is too short a time to experience, or for any one single event to happen. Nevertheless, it remains a milestone for mankind - a time to focus on past accomplishments and future goals. According to all these calculations, I should in fact have celebrated the millennium at 00:57 and 41 seconds on Friday 7 April 1995. Like you, I was asleep at the time.