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How Accurate Are Calendars?

The Julian calendar was abolished because it did not reflect the length of a year on Earth accurately. Today's Gregorian calendar does a better job, but is there such a thing as a perfect calendar?

Illustration image

Earth's orbit around the Sun defines year length.

The length of a year on Earth is defined by the time it takes our planet to complete a full orbit around the Sun.

©bigstockphoto.com/dellm60

A Year is Not 365 Days Long

The length of a year on Earth is defined by the time it takes our planet to complete a full orbit around the Sun. Called a tropical year, solar year, astronomical year or equinoctial year, it is approximately 365.242189 days long on average. Its length changes slightly over time.

Because a common year has 365 days in today's Gregorian calendar, a leap day is regularly added to bring it in sync with the tropical year.

Without leap days, our calendar would be off by 1 day approximately every 4 years, causing the astronomical seasons to occur at an increasingly later date as time goes by. In less than 50 years, the March equinox would be in April and the June solstice would occur in July.

Which Years Are Leap Years?

Is There A Perfect Calendar?

The simple answer is no. None of the calendar systems currently in use around the world perfectly reflect the length of a tropical year. However, there are calendar systems that are more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use today. One of them is the Revised Julian calendar.

The table shows how accurate the different systems are (sorted from most to least accurate).

CalendarIntroducedAverage Year LengthApproximate Error
Persian calendar2nd millennium BCE365.2421986 daysLess than 1 sec/year (1 day in 110,000 years)
Revised Julian calendar1923 CE365.242222 days2 sec/year (1 day in 31,250 years)
Mayan calendar~2000 BCE365.242036 days13 sec/year (1 day in 6500 years)
Gregorian calendar1582 CE365.2425 days27 sec/year (1 day in 3236 years)
Jewish calendar9th century CE365.246822 days7 min/year (1 day in 216 years)
Julian calendar45 BCE365.25 days11 min/year (1 day in 128 years)
365-day calendar
(no leap years)*
-365 days6 hours/year (1 day in 4 years)

* There is no 365-day calendar system currently in use for civil purposes. Past examples include the ancient civil Egyptian calendar, the Maya Haab' calendar, and the Aztec Xiuhpohualli calendar.

The Julian Calendar

In the Julian calendar, a leap day is added every four years without exception, so an average Julian year is 365.25 days long. The difference between the tropical and the Julian year is about 11 minutes per year, amounting to an error of 1 day every 128 years.

Because of this inaccuracy, the Julian calendar was eventually replaced by the Gregorian calendar.

About the Julian Calendar

The Gregorian Calendar

Today's Gregorian calendar uses more elaborate leap year rules, making it far more accurate. However, it is not perfect either. Compared to the tropical year, it is 27 seconds too long, so it is off by 1 day every 3236 years.

About the Gregorian Calendar

The Revised Julian Calendar

This calendar system uses even more complex rules to determine when a leap day is to be added. With an error of only about 2 seconds per year or 1 day in 31,250, it is roughly 10 times more accurate than today's Gregorian calendar and one of the most accurate calendar systems ever devised.

About the Revised Julian Calendar

Topics: Calendar, Months, Leap Year

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Calendar History

  1. Gregorian Calendar
  2. Julian Calendar
  3. Switch from Julian to Gregorian
  4. Roman Calendar
  5. What Do CE and BCE Mean?
  6. Did the Millennium Start in 2000 or 2001?

Is there a perfect calendar?


Calendars Worldwide

  1. Hindu Calendar
  2. Buddhist Calendar
  3. Islamic Calendar
  4. Jewish Calendar
  5. Persian Calendar
  6. Chinese Calendar
  7. Coptic Calendar
  8. Ethiopian Calendar
  9. Revised Julian Calendar
  10. Mayan Calendar

Is there a perfect calendar?


Alternative Leap Years

  1. Bahá'í Calendar Leap Year
  2. Chinese Calendar Leap Year
  3. Ethiopian Calendar Leap Year
  4. Hindu Calendar Leap Year
  5. Persian Calendar Leap Year
  6. Islamic Calendar Leap Year
  7. Jewish Calendar Leap Year
  8. Buddhist Calendar Leap Year

Leap Years in Other Calendars

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