TWELVF MONTHS from now, we shall all be caught up in the celebration of the "millennium". Of course, we all know that in strict mathematical truth, the new millennium does not begin until I January 2001, and that what we shall he keeping then will be a bi-millennium. I expect there will be some who postpone their celebrations until the end of 2000; the Fellows of All Souls have always kept their Mallard Feast on the right day. even though popular celebrations took place on 1 January 1800 and 1900.
There will, I think, be few of us single-minded enough to follow the advice of the Bishop of Monmouth and go to bed at the usual hour on 31 December 1999. At the very least we shall want to see if our clocks, videos, computers and so on have survived the onslaught of the Millennium Bug.
We shall also be frequently reminded that nobody really knows the date of Christ's birth. and that it certainly did not happen in Year 1. There will be the usual complaints about the absence of Year 0, and disagreements about whether 2000 will or will not be a Leap Year. (Incidentally, it will; for the first time in England a year ending with 2 zeros will be a leap year — in 1600 our protestant nation had still not adopted the papist innovation of the Gregorian calendar.) Our present chronology, which is presumably too well-established ever to be altered, was established by Dionysius Exiguous (Denis the Small), a monk in Rome about 500 AD. Using the best materials then available to him, which included rabbinic tradition and the documents of Roman history, as well as the Bible, he settled on 25 December in the year 753 from the foundation of Rome (AVC) which he called 1 BC. He then projected backwards 4000 years to get the date of the Creation of the world.
It was long ago recognised that 753 must be wrong, for independent historical records show that Herod the Great was dead by 749. The scholarly Archbishop Ussher, the protestant Archbishop of Armagh, concluded in 1658 that "4 BC" was the correct date, and that the Creation must therefore have been in 4004 BC; his dating appears in the margins of all old editions of the Authorised Version of the Bible. Most modern scholars would put the birth of Christ in 6 or even 8 BC. Yet nobody. that I am aware of, paid any attention to the possible bi-millenium 6 or 8 years ago.
When it came to the time of year, Denis paid heed to the traditions of the rabbis that great events (including the Creation) happened at the equinoxes and solstices. The first date that he established to his own satisfaction was that of the beginning of the New Creation, the Annunciation by the Angel to Our Lady, which he placed on 25 March, 753 AVC. Going forward nine months, this gave him December as the date of Our Lord's birth; this date was already observed in Rome, probably for mystical reasons as being the "shortest day" and accord
ingly the birthday of the Sun (nalalis sous invicili)lt was the custom in the Eastern church to commemorate the Incarnation on 6 January; this included the visit of the Magi, and so the stupid idea grew up that this took place 12 days, rather than several months or even years, after the Birth.
Before 25 December was chosen as Christmas Day, other feasts were being observed about the same time: St Stephen on 26 and St John on 27, probably their real dates of death. Famously, the feast of St Anastasia falls on 25 December itself; as her church lies just below the walls of the Palatine, the custom grew up for the Pope to celebrate a kind of "early Communion" for the Imperial family between his other Masses at St Maria Maggiore, which is the origin of the Mass of the Dawn. (Later on, under the influence of historicism, the feast of the Holy Innocents was squeezed in on 28.) But it was never possible to observe a real Octave of Christmas, like the Octave of Easter, during which no other observances are permitted.
Because this date fell so close to the beginning of the astronomical New Year on 1 January (as distinct from the civil New Year which was still kept in March) Denis did not bother to change the
computation of the year, BC or AD, until then. The chronology shows the events of those days, as envisaged by Denis. (It should be understood that these are real, historical events; only the dates are imaginary.) There are 3 reason why there is no Year 0. First, the concept of "zero" had not then entered western mathematics; secondly, it would be quite different from the way we deal with other dates, observing our 100th birthday at the end, not the beginning, of our hundredth year; and thirdly, it would make it necessary to insert an extra year in any computation beginning BC and ending AD.
From all this you will see (if you have managed to follow me thus far) that 31 December 1999 and I January 2000 are not the bi-millennium of anything in particular; they are purely mathematical oddities, like that day in March 1945 that I can just remember, that could be expressed as 12/3/45. They are, as a result of human lack of foresight, the days on which our computers will go wrong. If we wish for one moment to take Denis's chronology au pied de la lettre, the day to celebrate would be December 25 December 2000, the "official" millennium of the birth of Bethlehem.
Denis's chronology of the Nativity Year 2 BC (752 AVC) 29(?) September: visit of the angel to Zacharias Year 1 BC (753 AVC) 25 March: the Annunciation 24 June: birth of St John Baptist
25 December: birth of Our Lord (the first 7 days of his life are lived in year I BC) Year 1 AD (754 AVC)
I January: circumcision of Our Lord (beginning of astmnomical year) 2 February: presentation in Temple (followed after some time by visit of Magi and flight into Egypt)