December 21, 2012 is a month away, so it’s time to start the Mayan calendar countdown.

I’m sure that the Mayans would have been counting down pretty seriously to the date, although no one seems to be really sure if they were counting down to the end or the beginning. One door closes and another one opens?

Whether you have been reading about the date on this blog or elsewhere or listening to  programs online or just the occasional news segment, you must have heard some mention of the Mayan calendar’s 5000 year cycle ending on this year’s winter solstice.

Like all the earlier end of the world, disaster, rapture predictions, this one has plenty of theorists (asteroids, solar eruptions, aliens) including those by scientists and those who claim to be “Mayan experts.”

The Mayans used several mathematically complex calendars and the focus here is on one known as the Long Count Calendar. Remember, it’s a calendar. Like the calendar you have in your house, on your desk and on your computer and cell phone, it keeps track of days and it has an “end” which we have arbitrarily decided is December 31. And then? We flip over to a new one.

The Long Count Calendar is unusual to us because it records 1,872,000 days rather than our measly 365-day annual calendar. That Mayan Great Cycle’s end would probably have been a time for celebration, not fear. Remember our big Millennium countdown? Parties, celebrations, looking back, looking forward and Y2K.

There have been some theories concerning astrological happenings – which the Mayans were certainly concerned with – especially the claim that this particular winter solstice will also coincide with all of the planets in our solar system lining up with the sun. Astronomers have been pointing out for a few years that these claims are false and that it’s actually  impossible to predict accurately such a precise alignment.

­Because the Mayans were the first of the Mesoamericans to keep any sort of historical record, their concept of time is interesting to us today. Their stelae (stone monuments) have carvings about events, calendars and their astronomical knowledge. They were not the first civilization to use a calendar, but their four separate calendars for different ways of measuring is unique.

They were very interested in marking the time it takes for the sun to complete a solar year with one of their calendars, so they did have a calendar to track what we consider as a full year. That Haab calendar is similar to the Gregorian calendar that we use today with 360 days. The problem with that calendar was that 360 days didn’t have enough time for the sun to make it through a full solar cycle. The ancient Mayan astronomers wanted accuracy, but their mathematician brethren liked the simple consistency of the increments of 20 in their math system. We do the same thing with out 10 and 100 focus. Those leftover 5 days after they passed the 18 times 20 mark were the “nameless days” that they called the wayeb. So, maybe we should be celebrating the December 27-31st.

The original Tzolk’in and Haab calendars were combined to form the Calendar Round which has 18,890 unique days, a time period of around 52 years. But  Mayan historians wanted to record their history for future generations and needed a calendar that would take them through thousands of years,  and so they created the Long Count calendar.

I think I will be spending my solstice doing solstice things rather than Mayan-worrying. I will pay attention to news reports and coverage because I find it interesting as a media thing.

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years. And celebrations predate when humans were farming on a large-scale, so this goes beyond harvest festivals. The remains of sites such as Stonehenge in Britain and New Grange in Ireland show that the primary axes of both of these monuments are aligned to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. New Grange points to the winter solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset is aligned at Stonehenge.

We humans like to mark the passage of time. Even if it wasn’t some intelligent alien lifeform that taught us how to do it.