The Ides of March

The coming of Daylight Savings Time yesterday prompted conversations that w have repeated many times in our household. Yesterday we were talking about how may more clocks we used to have to set. These days we use our phones and digital devices to tell us what time it is and they automatically make the time shift for us. In this house at present, we had to set five clocks yesterday: A bedside clock radio, the clock in the microwave in the kitchen, the clock in the oven in the kitchen, the clock in our car and the clock in our pickup. There were days in the past when we had to manually set watches, alarm clocks in each bedroom, wall clocks, mantle clocks and more. Our antique clocks are presently in storage awaiting the time we settle into a more permanent housing situation, so that eliminates three clocks that need to be set.

Another conversation we had is a reminder that not all people think of the passage of time in the same way. North American indigenous tribes generally measured time by the lunar calendar, speaking of specific full moons as indicators of the passage of seasons and the time for planting, harvesting or hunting activities. Lunar calendars are common around the globe. However, long ago, those observing the passage of time found that counting days gave a different kind of measurement. Even so, not all people count days in the same fashion.

In Roman times, the days of the month weren’t counted up the way we do. Instead, they counted backwards from three different fixed places in each month. The Nones fell on the 5th or the 7th of the month, so early in the month days were identified by how many days until the Nones. When the Nones arrived, they counted backwards from the Ides. The Ides were the 13th of the month for most months, but the 15th in March, May, July and October. That is why the Nones fell on different days in different months. It was nine days before the Ides. After the Ides, days were identified by how many days remained before the Kalends, or the 1st day of the next month. It sounds a bit awkward, and it is for us, because we are so used to counting days from beginning to end. The Roman Calendar was originally a lunar calendar, with the Ides being the day of the full moon, but it was readjusted to better fit a solar calendar over many years of observances.

In Roman times, the Ides was generally a day of celebration. It was a tradition to offer a sacrifice fo Jupiter, the supreme deity on the Ides. The sacrifice then was accompanied by a feast and people observed the day with picnics, drinking and revelry. In the Roman calendar, the first of the year came in the spring with the Ides of March and it was common to observe and ancient Greek ritual of beating an old man dressed in animal skins. He was symbolically driven from town, symbolizing the driving out of the old year.

It was the playwright Shakespeare who gave us the modern identification of the Ides of March. It is the date when Julius Caesar was assassinated, stabbed to death in a meeting of the Senate. Caesar was warned of the event by a seer and is said to have joked with the seer as he passed him on the way to the Senate, saying “the Ides of March are come,” implying that the prophecy had not come true. The seer responded, “Aye, Caesar, but not gone.” The death of Caesar triggered a civil war that resulted in the rise of Octavian, later known as Augustus. On the fourth anniversary of Caesar’s death Octavian excited 300 former officials who had been his enemies in the civil war.

Shakespeare doesn’t include all of the details in his play, but the warning about the Ides of March has remained a part of popular culture.

For the past 40 years the Ides of March have been marked in our household as the birthday of our son. 40 years ago the Ides fell on a Sunday and while Sunday is a less common day for the birth of a child, it is more frequent in households where one parent is a member of the clergy. Our son, Isaac, with both parents being clergy, came shortly after noon on a Sunday, timing his arrival so that three services were missed by his father, the scheduled preacher for the day. And his father wasn’t the one doing all of the hard work that day.

In our household, the day is not a day to dread, but rather a day to celebrate. We lived in North Dakota when he was born and that year brought an especially mild spring to that part of the country. It was, however, still North Dakota, where frost is common until the end of May. I, however, got spring fever in the midst of the joy of becoming a father. That spring I put out my tomato plants, grown indoor from seed, too early and the frost got them. Undaunted, I put out a second batch of plants. They too were frozen. It was only the third set, purchased from a nursery that finally produced fruit. The phrase “Beware the Ides of March,” became a sort of a joke about the dangers of getting too excited about spring before the cold weather has passed.

The significant spring storm that brought icy roads and severe weather to Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska over the past day made for some cold conditions in South Dakota as well. It was enough to remind folks there that spring weather is still a ways away. Out here, where the weather is more mild frost is still a possibility. It’s too early to set the tomato plants in the garden.

We celebrated the Ides one day early because Sunday was a day off work for our son and daughter-in-law and a good time to celebrate his birthday. His three children were pretty excited about the special dinner, cake and presents. We reminisced about his birth and all of the fun days of celebration we have shared over the years. Like the ancient Romans, we have counted the days until his birthday and used it as a time to celebrate the coming of spring.

And, like Caesar, we don’t yet know how today will turn out. “The Ides of March are Come.” “Aye. . . but not gone!”