Last Update: 05 Feb 00
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As of this writing (Dec 97), we are barely over two years away from an event that can properly be described as both profoundly important and profoundly trivial. That event, of course, is the dawning of the year 2000 -- what will likely be called "the start of the next millennium". Since this event will undoubtedly spawn endless discussions ranging from the intellectual to the paranoid, I might as well chime in with my own take on things.
I'm not going to attempt to cover the history of millennial observances in this essay. Nor will I attempt to solve the question of whether the next millennia actually begins in the year 2000 or the year 2001. There is already a superb book by Stephen J. Gould on this subject ("Questioning the Millennium") that will suffice to do those things. I'm just going to throw in a few considerations that the book does not address.
A "millennium" is, literally, a period of one thousand consecutive years. The word does not mandate that such a period must either begin or end on the first or last day of a year whose number is evenly divisible by 1000. In other words, it would be just as accurate to say that any given day could either be the ending or the beginning of a "millennium". Gould's book adequately describes the reasons why the year 2000 has such particular fascination. In short, it has to do with our decimal system of enumeration combined with Christian myths of a "second coming of Christ".
The arguments over whether the year 2000 or 2001 is the actual beginning of "the millennium" derives from an inaccuracy in the enumeration used by our calendar. In the sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus established the B.C./A.D. system of year numbering and placed the transition between the two at the year he said was that one in which Jesus was born. While we now know that Jesus was actually born at least four years prior to "A.D. 1", the real problem is that there is no year "0" in this calendar reckoning scheme. So, in purely logical terms, the first millennium should have begun in the year 1 and ended in the year 1000. This means that the second millennium would have started in 1001 and will end in 2000. This would clearly put the beginning of the next millennium in 2001.
Popular fiat, however, will undoubtedly demand that the "official" observance will take place as the clock strikes midnight between December 31, 1999 and January 1, 2000. This is based on nothing more than the "thrill" one gets from such things as watching an automobile odometer "roll over" to a nice, round number from one ending in several "9"s. This would seem to suggest that we must accept that the first millennium had only 999 years -- Year 1 through Year 999.
How are we to resolve the question? Gould states simply that it is unresolvable. However, I would like to suggest an answer that he does not consider in his book. We know that our current B.C./A.D. system was originally based upon the birth of Jesus. However, the first day of A.D. 1 is not the day of his birth. That day is celebrated on December 25 (arguments about the accuracy of that day are outside the scope of this essay) -- which means (ignoring for a moment the aforementioned error in Dionysius' calculation) that Jesus was born on December 25, 1 B.C. This could reasonably be taken to mean that the first year (albeit, a rather short year) of the first millennium was actually 1 B.C. and not A.D. 1. This would make A.D. 999 the one-thousandth year of the first millennium and, therefore, would also make A.D. 1999 the one-thousandth year of the current millennium and support a celebration for the dawning of a new millennium on January 1, 2000.
I stated in the opening paragraph that I also thought that the issue could be considered profoundly trivial. This is because all the fervor about the year 2000 makes one large and arbitrary assumption that must be considered. That calendar is based solely upon a reckoning scheme derived from the beliefs of one particular religion. There are numerous other calendars in use which have different bases for their enumerations. In these calendars, the day we will refer to as January 1, 2000 will have no special meaning at all from either an enumerational or a religious standpoint. There is also nothing inherent in nature that will lend any special meaning towards that day. The celebration will be one based purely upon the emotional appeal of "round numbers".
Will I celebrate on January 1, 2000? Yes -- in the same way that I would celebrate any other day of any other year. I see each day as a potential new opportunity for learning, achievement and happiness. In that respect, all days are equally worthy of being celebrated. Oh, I'll probably join in with the crowd on the night of December 31, 1999. After all, a party is a party is a party and that night will offer a good excuse for a good party.
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