21    Jan 20070 comments

Saving the date: Calendars 101

Today, we use large and small printed calendars, diaries and various electronic gadgets to keep track of birthdays, anniversaries, dentist appointments, holidays and school vacations.

In ancient times, people needed calendars for the seasons: when to plant, when rains might start, when the harvest would be ready and when to celebrate, as well as religious, celestial and astrological happenings.

The word calendar comes from Latin, kalendarium (account book), which comes from kalendae, or calends, the day when interest on debts became due in the Roman calendar. Calendar systems are solar and based on the sun (Ancient Egyptian, Gregorian, etc.); lunar and based on the moon's phases (Islamic, Jewish, etc.) or a combination (Han Chinese, Tibetan, etc.).

Some count a new day from sunset of the previous day (Jewish calendar), some begin the new day at just after midnight. The Islamic calendar depends on physical sighting of the moon's phases, making calendars nearly impossible to print ahead of time. Until 1957, India had some 30 different calendars, and Zoroastrians use three types of calendars.

When we lived in Iran in the 1970s, our printed calendar showed Gregorian (the general-use calendar), in addition to Jewish, Persian, Armenian (Greek Orthodox), Zoroastrian and Baha'i dates. Not much room to write down birthdays!


Julius Caesar introduced his namesake Julian calendar in 46 BC, with New Year celebrated on March 25. This was used until the Gregorian calendar was suggested by a Naples doctor, Aloysius Lilius, and adopted by Pope Gregory XIII after the Council of Trent (1545-1563). In February 1582, the Pope decreed the new system, but not all countries used it immediately.

It established January 1 as New Year's Day, and also ordered that 10 days should be dropped from October 1582, and that October 4 would be followed by October 15. Immediately adopting it were Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain, followed by other Catholic countries. Protestant countries eventually switched. Greek Orthodox countries didn't change until the early 20th century. Russia switched in 1918, following the 1917 revolution.

When the Gregorian was adopted, various countries lost days at different times as it came into use. When England finally adopted it in 1752 after a 170-year delay, 11 days were dropped - many people thought they had lost 11 days' pay and protested. Genealogists need to be aware that there are somewhat unclear record dates for English and colonial records from 1 January-24 March, in the years before 1753.

The change to the "new" New Year's day was encouraged by the boom in world trade, and businesses wanted a clearly stated year. However, because different countries adopted the Gregorian at different times, some records written in "split year" or "double dating," during 1582-1752. Countries using the "old style" Julian calendar might write February 14, 1714/15, which indicated the Julian calendar was still being used, but the Gregorian date was February 25, 1715. The Encyclopedia of Genealogy link below offers an excellent article on more details of the confusion and how genealogists need to reference such dates.


Why do we need calendar conversions? The first reason is to better understand ancestral birth, marriage and death records.

The switchover from Julian to Gregorian impacts genealogical records. A vital record based on the French Revolutionary Calendar is meaningless without a conversion program.

For example, dates of death are important to the Jewish people, who traditionally recite special prayers on a relative's memorial day according to the Jewish calendar. Gravestones may only show the Hebrew date, which must be converted into Gregorian to learn the proper day.

MyHeritage offers conversion for Gregorian, Jewish and the French Revolutionary Calendar. Go to MyHeritage Family Tree Builder to any individual's page and hit EDIT. On any line for a date, you'll see a calendar-like icon, as seen below.

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PHOTO: Click on the circled icon and the Calendar Conversion utility comes up

In the screen that will open, as shown below, enter any date. Click one of the other calendar conversion buttons and see the date in the other format.

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The Gregorian New Year begins 1 January; the Persian New Year (Now Ruz) begins 20-21 March, at the spring equinox. The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) begins in September or early October, while Chinese New Year falls between 21 January-21 February.

To denote ancient from more modern years, Gregorian uses BC (Before Christ) and AD (Latin, anno domini "Year of Our Lord"), the Jewish calendar uses CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before Common Era), and the Baha’i use BE (Baha’i Era).

While Western calendars are linear, progressing from a specific starting point, traditional Chinese culture uses a 60-year cyclical pattern (marked as the Year of the Rat, Horse, etc.). China uses the administrative Gregorian civil calendar with the traditional Chinese calendar for festivals and agricultural activities.


The French Revolutionary Calendar (French Republican Calendar) was introduced on 24 November 1793 and abandoned 1 January 1806. Each month had three weeks of 10 days; people worked for nine days before a one-day “weekend.” This caused another revolution, leading to its disappearance.


The Jewish calendar day begins at sunset. Observant families will light Sabbath candles 20 minutes before sunset and, according to religious law, the end of the Sabbath only occurs when one can see three stars in the sky.

Fortunately, these calculations have been made mathematically and are available according to city, usually printed in local community calendars and newspapers. One doesn’t need to stand outdoors in a blizzard or rain storm and attempt to see the stars, a clearly impossible task.

Genealogically, calendar convertors such as those on MyHeritage.com make it simple to discover what Gregorian date equals which Jewish date. Thus, a birth date of 27 Nissan 5580 corresponds to 11 April 1820. However, the person may have been born the previous day (10 April 1820) after sunset.


Calendars add a leap year or an extra month to make up for differences in year’s length. Gregorian adds a leap year, with an extra day in February in every year divided evenly by four, while the Jewish calendar adds an extra month, Adar II, by adding an entire month about every three years. Some calendars, such as the Islamic, float - which means a holiday may fall in different seasons.


Calendars are fascinating and there is much more to know. If you'd like to learn more, try the following links:

http://www.eogen.com/CalendarChange16thCentury - Calendars and genealogical issues
www.calendopedia.com - Calendar Comparison Chart and interesting information on many calendars.
http://calendopedia.com/chinese.htm - A good chart of the Chinese cyclical calendar
www.calendropedia.com/gregory.htm - A table of which countries adopted the Gregorian and when and the "lost days."
http://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/m_calint.htm - More Jewish calendar information
http://www.calendarhome.com/converter/ - More help with Gregorian, Julian, Mayan, Persian, Indian, Hebrew, Baha'i, Islamic, French Republican and others.
http://members.pcug.org.au/~dfry/calendar.html - Calendar comparison by month.

I look forward to reading your comments and questions on calendar-related issues.

12    Jan 20071 comment

Discovering your family history – taking the first steps

If we are very lucky, we may discover an ancestor has recorded a large family tree, or we have a famous relative and someone has already written the definitive family history book.

Everyone else starts at the beginning.

I knew virtually nothing about my family when I began, but I hungered for more details: Who were my ancestors? Where did they come from? When and why did they immigrate?

You likely have the same questions and the same desire to know more, so here are some tips to getting started:

1. Begin with what you know. Start with yourself; add your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Record maiden names of the women, and as much information as you can on other members, including places and dates of birth, marriage, death. Capitalize the SURNAME and write all dates in a clear format, such as the recommended 1 December 1920, which cannot be mistaken for a different month or year.

2. Preserve your family stories and traditions. Such stories may have changed over the years, but the kernel of truth is somewhere. Write down all family stories no matter how fanciful they may seem to you or other family members.

3. Interview family members and share information to spur recollection of memories. An African proverb says when an old person dies, it is as if a library has burned down. Talk to senior family members, as they are the keepers of family facts. As you share information, you may discover a kindred spirit among your cousins and become research partners.

4. Collect family photos and documents. Gather documents for births, marriages, deaths; locate photographs, letters, diaries, newspaper articles and religious articles, such as family bibles. Label the photographs you find or ask senior relatives about the people in them.

5. Join a genealogy society. Your local society has a library of reference materials, offers meetings with interesting speakers, and its members range from beginners through professional genealogists.

6. Keep a journal of your quest. It might become part of your family's story in a generation or two.

7. Begin your family tree. Enter the information you've gathered into family tree software, such as the user-friendly Family Tree Builder here on MyHeritage.com.

8. Expand your search. With the information you've gathered, you're ready to hunt for more and begin to travel the information highway in your quest.

Future articles will address many of these topics.

10    Jan 20070 comments

Genealogy skills

We must seem somewhat strange to others who have not yet caught the genealogy "bug."

Investigative skills are something we need to acquire. We analyze and dissect clues as we piece together the most complicated puzzles.

We learn to analyze like psychologists, understand history like historians, read maps like navigators, and our communication skills begin to rival therapists and psychiatrists as we persuade reluctant or senior family members to share their important knowledge.

Out of necessity, we become cryptographers, graphologists and paleographers to decipher illegible documents, signatures, misspellings, ancient handwritings and learn about Creative Spelling 101 to assist our online database searches.

We become writers, hone the hunting skills of scoop-sniffing reporters and prime-time interviewers. We learn to read other alphabets and, bit by bit, learn the essential vocabulary of genealogy in other languages as we gather linguistic skills. At the least, we learn more than we knew previously.

As we are compelled to organize our increasing material, we earn an MS in "more stuff," a PhD in "piled higher and deeper," a degree in librarianship in our spare time - if we knew what that was.

To decipher the clues in old photographs, we need to study historical costumes and interiors, as well as conservation techniques as we learn how to store valuable photographs and documents

When we organize our complex research trips to repositories, conferences and the "old country" to take those domestic and international journeys down discovery road, we'll need to become travel agents.

As we begin to drown in papers and need to store them, architecture, space planning and construction studies will be helpful. Records, papers, books, photographs and equipment will certainly outgrow the kitchen table, the dining room table and every horizontal surface, including the floor !

We haven't even touched the ever-changing technological revolution in genealogy including hardware and software innovations, which may present learning curve problems to the non-technies.

On the other hand, I don't know of any genealogist, amateur or professional, who would give up the frequently challenging and ultimately rewarding achievements of a complicated search.

(Adapted from the author's column, "It's All Relative: Gotta have skills.")

5    Jan 20072 comments


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PHOTO: Bahalachin Ethiopian Jewish Center executive director Solomon Akale (left), Schelly and Solomon's brother Yasu, at an event spotlighting the Center's plans to build a Heritage Center and Museum. The evening, which included traditional foods and a performance by the center's folklore ensemble, was held at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv. A future article will cover the importance of genealogy to this community

Who's interested in genealogy?

As a researcher and journalist who writes on genealogy and family history research, I've heard that question and others: "Don't you have anything else to do?" "Why are you bothering me?" and the classic "Everyone's dead - who cares?"

I've interviewed 80-year-olds who ask those questions and then begin to recall childhood memories. My phone sometimes rings at 3 a.m. as the caller, oblivious to international time zones, says, "Quick! I just remembered something. Write it down before I forget."

Genealogy isn't only about those no longer with us. Family history is as much about the living, making connections, linking past to present, preserving and transmitting our unique history to our descendants.

It shouldn't be just a dry list of names and dates. It is about discovering our ancestors' origins and lives. We honor and remember our ancestors as we share discoveries with our families.

The mystery of history - more precisely family history - has fascinated me for nearly 20 years, and I've been writing about genealogy for more than a decade, in addition to speaking at international conferences, teaching online genealogy classes, blogging and, of course, researching my families and that of my husband.

My genealogical interests range far and wide, and this new blog will provide opportunities to investigate even more resources, publications and events across the field. I'll share interesting and useful information noted in newspapers and magazines as well as new books. Local and international events of interest will be noted, and you'll learn how these can help you and your research.

Most importantly, because genealogy is more than a two-way street - more like a multi-lane highway - your input is very important to this process. I'd like to know what you think, the topics you want to see covered and the genealogical problems you're having.

Send in your comments, requests for topics or questions on your genealogical problems. Share a new resource you've discovered and how it has helped you, a new book you've read, or anything else related to genealogy.

I'm looking forward to reading your messages.

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