Must Cinco de Mayo fall on the 5th of May?

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Last night Jay Leno presented an advertisement by someone a little bit confused about Mexican(-American) culture: it urged people to get ready for Cinco de Mayo on May 6th. "Cinco de Mayo" of course means "the fifth of May". In this case the confusion is real – Cinco de Mayo does not fall on the sixth of May, but in theory it could. "Cinco de Mayo" is the name of a holiday. The holiday is named after the day on which it falls, but the name is not itself a date. That means that we can imagine a future in which the holiday is still named "Cinco de Mayo" but falls on another date. It might be decided to celebrate on another day but to keep the traditional name, or Mexico might adapt a different calendar, one that had no month called "Mayo".

An example of this actually happening is the Japanese name for the last day of the year, which is 大晦日 o:misoka. In the current calendar the last day of the year is December 31st, in Japanese, the 31st day of the 12th month 十二月三十一日, but o:misoka actually means the 30th. 晦 stands for ミ十 miso "30" in classical Japanese. The name goes back to a calendar no longer in general use in which the twelfth month had only 30 days. Months were divided into three periods of ten days called 旬 dʒun. 大 o:, literally "big" in this context means the last day of the (last) ten day period, so the 30th. Thus, a holiday that currently falls on the 31st literally means "30th" due to a change in calendar.

A similar thing is reflected in the English month names. "October", "November", and "December" refer to the eighth, ninth, and tenth months. In the earliest known Roman calendar these were the last three months of the ten month year. In 713 BCE, however, the calendar was reformed and two new months were added at the beginning of the year. English and many other European languages have inherited the disparity between name and position created by this reform.

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  1. John Lawler said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

    I can remember when Veterans' Day in the US was still called "Armistice Day" and was always on 11/11, the date of the Great War's armistice. Then it became a movable holiday, and then it was renamed — I think in that order, but I haven't checked. Similar remarks on Washington's Birthday (2/22) and Lincoln's Birthday (2/12, my own birthday, when I always got out of school in Illinois); now they've been merged into Presidents' Day.

  2. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    At least for purposes of (U.S.) federal law, that holiday in February is still called "Washington's Birthday" (see 5 USC 6103), and it hasn't been observed on the date of Washington's birthday since 1970. ASDERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR1

  3. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

    Cat walked on the keyboard . . .

  4. Darla-Jean Weaterford said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    @John Lawler: You have the order right; it's my birthday, and I was glad to have "my" holiday back!

    @Jon Weinberg: I sort of expected a Lucy-like ARRRRRRGH in there somewhere, but I wasn't registering where you were taking it!

  5. JS Bangs said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    You forgot to add September, "seventh month", to your list of anachronistically named months.

  6. Jonathan Bobaljik said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 8:47 pm

    Closer to home: the May 24th weekend in (at least parts of?) Canada rarely includes May 24th. E.g.: http://gocanada.about.com/od/eventsandfestivals/a/victoria_day.htm

  7. Martin said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    I guess the classic example is the October Revolution on November 7th.

  8. Don said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

    In the wonderful tradition of minor league baseball teams offering goofy promotions, on May 25th the Richmond Flying Squirrels (!) will hold a Veinti y Cinco de Mayo Celebration.

  9. Azimuth said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:09 pm

    Jon Weinberg, is your cat's name "Aster"?

  10. Ellen K. said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

    There's Oktoberfest, which is mostly in September.

  11. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

    @Azimuth: The cat is named Shoko, but she can't spell.

  12. DMajor said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:28 pm

    Once we in the US moved to mostly Monday holidays, I guess this is a plausible question,

    "So, when is the Fourth of July this year?"

  13. James Kabala said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:39 pm

    Veterans Day is back on November 11 now and has been since 1978. I believe World War I veteran groups (they were still alive then) protested the brief attempt to move it to Monday. The name change occurred in 1954.

  14. Albert Barnes said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 9:53 pm

    what about Christmas? Does that have to fall on Dec. 25?

  15. Eric TF Bat said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    I recall almost every Christmas Eve of my youth, hearing of at least one parishioner calling their priest to ask what time Midnight Mass was. This may seem less incomprehensible when you learn that the answer varied from nine to eleven PM depending on various factors. Apparently Midnight Mass is the Mass that is happening at midnight, not necessarily the one that begins at midnight. And you have to be there an hour early to get a seat anyhow, because all the C&E Catholics show up too. (That's "Christmas and Easter Catholics", if it's not obvious – the ones who haven't quite lapsed yet.)

  16. Bill Poser said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    Around here "midnight mass" may well be over before midnight. I sometimes go to midnight mass on one of the Carrier reserves and the time varies since there are not enough priests to cover all of the churches simultaneously. The same priest will say Mass at 9:30 in one place and again at midnight in another.

  17. HP said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 11:14 pm

    I'm a USian who has regularly weekly teleconferences with colleagues in Montreal. These meetings always start with a bit of chat. "We just had Thanksgiving. When is Canadian Thanksgiving this year?" "We just celebrated Independence Day. When is Canada Day again?" Then we had a meeting that occurred the week before Christmas. We were going over everyone's holiday schedule over the last two weeks of December. "So," I said into the speakerphone, "When is Canadian Christmas?"

    I thought it was a hilarious jape, but all I heard was silence all around . . ..

  18. Jason said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    There are a great many communities in the U.S. which celebrate Independence Day with fireworks anywhere from July 1-6— but not the 4th. Mostly, these are small cities or towns which cannot afford the 4th, when pyrotechnicians in the region will be busy in larger or wealthier places. Invariably you will see a flyer inviting you to a Fourth of July celebration that takes place on the 5th. Many Hallmark holidays get shifted this way as well, especially so-called "St. Patrick's Day" and "Mardis Gras" celebrations.

  19. Randy E said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    My hometown has a Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) celebration that takes place not on a Tuesday but on a Friday and a Saturday (in August, at that, rather than the actual Mardi Gras much earlier in the year).

  20. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 11:56 pm

    @ HP: In this part of Canada (Manitoba), Ukrainian Christmas is fairly widely celebrated, and takes place in January.

  21. John Cowan said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:22 am

    The Fourth of July celebrates an event that occurred on July 2nd (my birthday):

    The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more. —John Adams

  22. D.O. said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:45 am

    @John Cowan: But the Declaration was adopted on the 4th. Thus the proper name for the holiday should be The Declaration of Independence Day.

    @Martin: There is also Russian February Revolution, which occurred almost completely in March (Gregorian calendar). And, strangely, the main event, abdication of the czar, was in March even by old Russian calendar.

  23. Rubrick said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    Oktoberfest takes place mostly in September (though it does end in October).

  24. the other Mark P said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 1:22 am

    In this part of Canada (Manitoba), Ukrainian Christmas is fairly widely celebrated, and takes place in January.

    Sorry, but Orthodox Christmas is 25 December.

    It's just that those churches do not use the Gregorian calendar, instead retaining the old Roman Julian calendar. Without the leap year correction, it has drifted further and further away.

    (This was also the reason for the October Revolution being in November.)

  25. Mark Etherton said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 2:47 am

    There's also the Fourth of June, Eton's celebration of the birthday of George III, which takes place on the nearest Saturday to 4 June, and May Week at Cambridge, which is in June.

  26. maidhc said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 5:47 am

    My understanding of Cinco de Mayo is that the original motivating force for a celebration of Mexican culture in the US was Hispanic college fraternities. Mexican Independence Day is Sept. 16, but that is too close to the start of the fall semester to get anything organized. So instead they chose Cinco de Mayo, which coming at the end of the spring semester, gives plenty of time to prepare. It is commemorated in Mexico, but it's not as big.

    There's a concept in American culture that every ethnicity should have a parade. So we get Chinese New Year, St. Patrick's Day, etc. I think it's a good idea for a multicultural society. But when you do that, it is better to have the parade on the weekend. So maybe Cinco de Mayo won't be exactly on Cinco de Mayo, just like the St. Patrick's Day parade is not exactly on March 17.

    If you think about it, it gives you two days to party instead of just one.

  27. John said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    There is no known Roman calendar that has the number months holding their suggested positions. That is, September is the ninth month in all calendars we have. That Sept was the seventh month is a reconstruction. (Also July was Quintilis and August Sextilis, so there used to be two more.)

  28. Rodger C said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    Grade-school joke: "Do they have a Fourth of July in England?" "No." "Sure they do! Right after the third."

  29. Rodger C said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 7:30 am

    Re Presidents' Day, my understanding is that it was pushed by Southern politicians who resisted adding Lincoln's Birthday to the calendar. Contaray to what most of us (including West Virginians) assumed growing up, Lincoln's birthday was never a national holiday. A friend of a friend who moved from Michigan to North Carolina in the 70s kept his childen home from school on Feb. 12 and was astonished to receive a notice asking him to account for the absences.

  30. The Ridger said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    Surely September as the 7th month goes to a year beginning in March? Which was fairly common – and even lingered in Britain until 1752 (in fact, the year began on March 25, which must have made remembering to change the year in your checkbook particularly hard ;-) ), although there may not have been a formal calendar so stating.

  31. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    @ the other Mark P:

    True enough, but I was obviously referring to the Gregorian calendar in reference to HP's comment:

    "So," I said into the speakerphone, "When is Canadian Christmas?"

    It wouldn't be very helpful to answer a question about a Gregorian calendar date with a date in the Julian calendar, without informing the other party that you weren't talking about the same system.

  32. Tom said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    There's also the feria de abril which in many parts of Spain takes place in May.

  33. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 8:19 am

    Not quite the same, but the holidays (days off work) associated with various holidays (days of celebration/festivity) in England (and sometimes other bits of the UK) are often distinct if the day of festivity falls on a weekend in a given year. So New Year's Day this year was actually January 3, as far as the bank holiday was concerned.

  34. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    In second grade I had to state on a quiz which month had the leap day every four years. Having no idea, and no leap year experience to guide me (and having paid no attention in class), I put it at the end of December. Seemed like the best place to me to add an extra day. I was mystified, and a little irritated, that "they" put it in February. Made no sense to me. I still think December 32 is the best idea, and it could be a universal holiday in tandem with January 1.

  35. Greg said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    Not a holiday, but… the US TV show "Monday Night Football" sometimes broadcasts (live) games on Thursdays and Saturdays.

  36. Dan T. said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 10:20 am

    There have been Saturday Night Live specials on other nights of the week, too.

  37. Dan T. said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 10:21 am

    (And those specials generally aren't live, either; they consisted of pre-recorded segments from earlier live shows.)

  38. Dan T. said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    The show Friday Night Lights has aired on several different weeknights, not always on Friday (though the title actually refers to high school football games, not to the airing of the show itself).

  39. cameron said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    I'm waiting for the year when Halloween falls on a Friday the 13th. That'll be really spooky.

  40. Acilius said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    @John: As you doubtless recall, the Romans didn't have serial numbers for years, where year #2011 follows year #2010 and precedes year #2012. Instead, they named the year after the most senior of their annually elected magistrates. Usually, these were the two consuls. Since the consuls took office on 15 March until 153 BC, the "reconstruction" you speak of does not in fact require much of an imaginative leap.

  41. John Burgess said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    Many US Embassies, particularly in the Middle East, hold their Independence Day celebrations (also called Fourth of July parties) at different times of the year. This is purely functional as July tends both to be too hot for outdoor parties–the list of invitees is huge–and because local governments are often running with minimal staffing during the summer months.

    It can be difficult, from abroad, to get the White House to understand this and come up with Presidential Proclamations, something many simply expect on the day.

  42. David Brooks (not that one) said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    @Mark Etherton: May Week at Cambridge [, England], which is in June.

    Yes, and it lasts ten days.

    My company, at least, draws attention to misplaced days by observing them: we get "Independence Day (Observed)" off when July 4 is on a weekend day.

  43. Boris said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    Some calendars that indicate business, school, or government closings label the day as [Holiday Name] (Observed) for days which are not exact anniversaries of whatever is being celebrated. I don't remember ever seeing "July 4th (Observed)" on the 5th when July 4th is a Sunday, but I've definitely seen "Christmas (Observed)" for when Christmas falls on a weekend and businesses are closed on an adjacent weekday. I am not a Christian, but if I were, I might be offended if someone told me to observe Christmas on a different date.

  44. Mark Reed said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

    Many people refer to the US holiday of Independence Day as if its name were "Fourth of July", so I always sort of assumed that was the deal with Cinco de Mayo, as well, and that the actual holiday was "El Día de la Batalla de Puebla" or something. (Since it's my birthday, you'd think I'd have researched it better. :)

    @The Ridger: January has been the first month of the Julian calendar since Julius Caesar instituted it in 45BC. The Latin month names were carried over from the previous calendar, and do strongly imply that at one time March was the first month of that older calendar, but that was never true of the Julian in Roman use. I don't know how the (much) later European practice of starting the year on the Feast of the Annunciation of March 25th began; it's possible it was inspired by the Latin month names. But there was no uninterrupted period going back to Roman times when March was the first month.

  45. mollymooly said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 1:06 pm

    The Queen's Official Birthday is on different days in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Western Australia.

  46. Bloix said,

    April 15, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    There is a church on 16th St, NW in Washington DC whose name is "The Nineteenth Street Baptist Church."

    http://www.everyblessing.org/

  47. Acilius said,

    April 16, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    @Mark Reed: I'm not at all sure that the names of the years were features of the Roman calendar in the same way that the names of the months were. Once the year we know as 155 BC was past, for example, there would never be another known as "the consulship of Marcellus and Nasica Corculum," while December would return regularly.

  48. Sili said,

    April 16, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    In second grade I had to state on a quiz which month had the leap day every four years. Having no idea, and no leap year experience to guide me (and having paid no attention in class), I put it at the end of December. Seemed like the best place to me to add an extra day. I was mystified, and a little irritated, that "they" put it in February. Made no sense to me. I still think December 32 is the best idea, and it could be a universal holiday in tandem with January 1.

    And just to add to the fun, as I recall it the leap day is the 24th and not actually the 29th.

  49. Ellen K. said,

    April 16, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

    No, leap day was February 24 in ancient Rome. It's not now. If it was, there would be two February 24ths. It's February 29 that is the added day, so it's leap day.

  50. Philip Newton said,

    April 18, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    I'm always amused by the distinction many draw between "Fourth of July" (a celebration) and "July Fourth" (the date that celebration falls on) – that is, the difference in word order.

    The "Fourth of July" word order is older, or so it seems to me; it's also the order I use even for dates, since my speech is influenced mostly by British English.

  51. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    As I understand it, the practice of counting years from the 25th March in mediaeval Europe began because the annunciation – and hence the conception of Jesus – was seen as the first act in the work of salvation, from which the Christian era was dated.

    The previous Roman practice of counting from March, as Mark Reed says, was quite different. But while the civil year at one time began in March, with the inauguration of consuls, I have an idea that the religious year even then began in January – hence the dedication of that month to Janus, god of doors, who looks both forward and back.

  52. bryan said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    "An example of this actually happening is the Japanese name for the last day of the year, which is 大晦日 o:misoka. In the current calendar the last day of the year is December 31st, in Japanese, the 31st day of the 12th month 十二月三十一日, but o:misoka actually means the 30th. 晦 stands for ミ十 miso "30″ in classical Japanese. The name goes back to a calendar no longer in general use in which the twelfth month had only 30 days. Months were divided into three periods of ten days called 旬 dʒun. 大 o:, literally "big" in this context means the last day of the (last) ten day period, so the 30th. Thus, a holiday that currently falls on the 31st literally means "30th" due to a change in calendar."

    They are all CHINESE characters:
    ミ十, (miso? ミ, mi, might stand for the native Japanese word for "three", mitsu / mittsu. 十 is never pronounced "so" in Japanese!) is NOT the same as 三十. 旬 = Every ten days or every ten years, depending on how it's defined from the Chinese cultural usage.

    "The name goes back to a calendar no longer in general use in which the twelfth month had only 30 days. Months were divided into three periods of ten days called 旬 dʒun."
    This is not even Japanese! It is the Chinese lunar calendar which the Japanese copied and used. No longer in use in Japan, but still used in China and a majority of countries in Asia, where Chinese people live.

    "大 o:, literally "big" in this context means the last day of the (last) ten day period, so the 30th. "
    Totally wrong! 小 was used for the lesser of 29 & 30 days from the Chinese lunar calendar of days. 大 was used for the lesser of 29 & 30 days from the Chinese lunar calendar of days. Has nothing to do with the last day of the month. It rather has to do with whether a month has 29 or 30 days!

    旬 has three:
    上旬 = first ten days of a lunar month.
    中旬 = middle ten days of a lunar month.
    下旬 = last ten days of a lunar month.

    晦 means "unclear", "night time" or "twilight" and has nothing to do with the last day of the year, if only symbolically used like twilight: from one night to the next morning.

  53. bryan said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:39 pm

    "大 was used for the lesser of 29 & 30 days from the Chinese lunar calendar of days. "
    I meant "the greater of 29 & 30 days…."

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