Christopher Smith writes about the French Revolutionary Calendar on the Dandelion of Sprouty
It does please me that, however much I may moan about the secularization of modern Britain, the ecclesiastical Calendar won’t lie down and die. In spite of the Reformation, and the years of Puritan rule after the Civil War, in spite of industrialization and secularization, and in spite of the increasing presence of people of non-Christian faiths in this country, the Calendar is, to a certain extent, still with us, even when its objects have themselves been secularized.
Good Friday and Easter Monday are still public holidays. The country still shuts down for Christmas, which goes on for longer than ever now. There has been no serious suggestion that Mothering Sunday should move from the fourth Sunday of Lent to a fixed date, perhaps to follow the American model and be kept on the second Sunday in May – although I remember with fondness the attempt some years ago by the National Chrysanthemum Society to have its date fixed during the chrysanthemum season because, they felt, the daffodil growers had had it all their own way for far too long.
Even in as diverse an institution as our church primary school, we discovered on Ash Wednesday that most of the children had been treated to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday night. We still sometimes make use of the old quarter days, on Lady Day, Midsummer Day (the nativity of St John the Baptist), Michaelmas Day and Christmas Day. And even the tax year nods in that direction, starting on what would still have been the feast of the Annunciation (Lady Day), had we not sliced twelve days out of 1752 in order to convert from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar.
The atheist revolutionaries in France, not content with encouraging the murder of priests, violent iconoclasm and confiscation of church lands, introduced a new calendar, a decimal calendar, with weeks of ten days, and, therefore, no Sundays, and of course, no saints’ days. It is why metrication should have been resisted as an atheist plot if you ask me, and there was even an attempt, doomed to immediate failure, to introduce decimal time, with ten-hour days and a hundred minutes to the metric hour.
In spite of their decimal calendar, the revolutionaries did keep the number of months at twelve, but they were renamed according to the weather in Paris at the relevant time, with the year beginning at the autumnal equinox with a month named after the grape harvest. That makes it sound too romantic, though: the year continued much more prosaically with months named foggy, frosty, snowy, rainy and windy. We are in the month of ‘germinal’ (as in germination) at the moment – let’s call it ‘sprouty’; next month will be flowery, or so we might hope! And, to get right away from the saints’ days, each individual day was given a name, generally after a plant, apart from days ending in 5s (which were animals) and 0s (which were named after tools). How functional it all is! Ash Wednesday this year was the Goat of Windy, and, if I have counted right, this edition of NEw DIRECTIONS is due to land on your doormat on the Lettuce of Sprouty.
If you have followed all this nonsense closely, you will have twigged that three ten-day weeks per month times twelve does leave the calendar a bit short, so some holidays (but distinctly not holy days) had to be added at the end, giving a national break in mid-September. Nowadays, of course, the French have the whole of August off, but then it was five days (or six in leap years) named after the suitably revolutionary themes of virtue, talent, work, convictions, honours, and, in a leap year, the Fête de la Révolution.
The glorious thing, of course, is that it did not work, and for all its efforts, the revolutionary state could not suppress the Church or the rhythm of the year by which we remember the life of Christ and the saints who have died confessing his name.
We are always challenged when we hear Jesus say, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly’. Well, if your priest has been drowned and your church ransacked, you might find that quite hard to put into practice. And that is hardly just an outdated scenario from revolutionary France, as we see when we look around the modern world at the terrifying rapidity with which Christians are being ‘cleansed’ from countries or parts of countries. Most of us, however, have no such excuse.
The French revolutionary calendar lasted a mere twelve years, although it put in a brief reappearance during the Paris Commune of 1871. But the destruction wrought upon the Church in France during the revolution is no joke. Yet this journey of ours, through Lent to Easter, brings the promise of forgiveness through repentance. Turn away from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel: the template for the Christian life. And in my more optimistic moments, I still think that if neither the reformers nor the revolutionaries can destroy the calendar, this yearly remembrance of the call to repentance and the message of forgiveness, which begins not with goat day or daffodil day but ash day, and which takes us through to the joy of Easter Day, is going to be with us for some time. ND