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What is a Lunar Calendar?

By A. B. Kelsey
Updated May 23, 2024
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A lunar calendar is simply a calendar that is based on the cycles of the moon. Such calendars have been used since antiquity — archaeologists have found evidence of lunar calendars that date back as far as 32,000 years ago. Some artifacts from the Ice Age, about 25000 and 10000 BCE, include sticks, reindeer bones, and mammoth tusks with carved notches and gouged holes in them. Many academic scholars believe that these marks depict the days between moon phases.

The Mayan Calendar was a lunar calendar system based on the agriculture requirements of living in a rain forest. The Mayans invented numerous calendar systems, but the most important one was the sacred tzolkin. This calendar was made up of 260 days and had two repeating cycles. One cycle consisted of 13 numbered days and the other cycle was made up of 20 named days.

The Babylonian calendar was another lunar calendar system. This calendar consisted of 12 months that alternated between being 29 days and 30 days long. Months with 29 days were called "hollow," while those with 30 days were called "full." The Babylonians eventually switched to the Egyptian calendar system, which was 12 months and 30 days long. This calendar was used for over 3000 years, not falling out of favor until about 238 BCE.

The Chinese originally used a lunar calendar system to determine the best times to plant, harvest, and hold their many religious festivals. Though a majority of modern Chinese citizens use the Western solar calendar for the more practical matters of their everyday lives, the old lunar calendar is still used to determine the dates of holidays and festival occasions. The Chinese people have long accepted this coexistence of two different calendar systems.

The only purely lunar calendar widely used today is the Islamic calendar, called the Hijri calendar. The years always have 12 lunar months. Because of the varying length of these lunar months, this calendar can’t be linked to the seasons. While the Hijri calendar is the official calendar in countries around the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, other Muslim countries only use the Islamic calendar for religions purposes and use the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes.

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Discussion Comments
By anon251211 — On Feb 29, 2012

I live in the west so the Gregorian calendar does play a big role, but I'm a Muslim and I do have a big Hijri calendar in my house. It comes in pretty useful when the month of fasting and the holidays come around, but I also use it to spot lunar phases.

By Charlie89 — On Nov 04, 2010

My grandfather did a lot of farming, so he always had a copy of the lunar phases calendar around as well as the Gregorian calendar. In fact, a lot of old farming traditions are based around the lunar calendar phases rather than the dates of the Gregorian calendar -- it's just more in tune with nature.

That's why we have things like a harvest moon or a blue moon -- old farming traditions. And that's also why so many almanacs still include the phases of the moon in their calendars.

Though I certainly appreciate the convenience of the Gregorian calendar, I think it's a shame that some of the older traditions are fading away. Convenience is great, but I think that having a more natural method of farming and being connected with the land can make a big difference.

By naturesgurl3 — On Nov 04, 2010

The lunar calendar still plays a big role in astrology as well. Many people actually follow the lunar calendar cycle for divination or just general astrology.

And like you said, the lunar calendar and Chinese astrology are deeply connected. That's why Chinese horoscopes are so different from Western horoscopes -- their system is much, much more complicated than that in the West.

For example, did you know that it during the year of your birth animal in the Chinese zodiac, you are actually not more lucky? A lot of people think that, but it's actually not true. In fact, when it's your animal's year, those who have complimentary animals to yours will be more lucky, but not you, since the opposing animals will try to mess up your animal (and your luck).

Just a little tidbit to bear in mind next time your animal's year rolls around...

By TunaLine — On Nov 04, 2010

Cool article! I had no idea that so many cultures still used the lunar cycle calendar! I mean, I know about the Chinese lunar calendar since you always hear about Chinese new year, but I had no idea that the lunar calendar was actually widely used in Islam.

That's got to be a little confusing, trying to keep up with the Gregorian calendar and current lunar calendar all at once -- or maybe it's one of those things that you just get used to.

Does anybody reading this use the lunar calendar regularly, or is it primarily used for ceremonial purposes, even in Islam?

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