The many uses of the "horse racing" calendar
It is relatively easy to know which day of the week it is. Similarly, we can more or less tell the time of day merely by looking outside the window. But how many of us can tell the date without referring to a calendar?
Counting the days
Since the dawn of civilisation, mankind has looked towards the stars to determine important events such as the ideal time for planting and harvesting. As far back as 4236 BC, the Egyptians noticed that the star Sirius rose next to the sun every 365 days. The Babylonians (about 2000 BC) and much later, the Mayans (between 250 and 900), were among those who used the solar system and nearby galaxies to measure time. These heavenly signs and portents were then extrapolated onto carvings and tablets for easy reference.
The Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan was used as a calendar of 365 days. Similarly, an Aztec calendar called the Xiuhpohualli, also had 365 days. These early calendars provided a blueprint of sorts for the very same calendars we use today.
The photo above, right: Pope Gregory XIII in an early 17th-century engraving. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar.
Today's Gregorian calendar serves as an international standard in most countries, notable exceptions being Thailand, India and Muslim countries. It is named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced this version in October 1582. It replaced the Julian calendar (used since 45 BC) because the months of fixed lengths had slowly shifted off course over the years. To deal with the 10-day difference in the drift, the date was advanced so that 4 October 1582 was followed by 15 October 1582.
It is ironic indeed that the calendars of the distant past were far more accurate than these "modern" ones!
The switchover was bitterly opposed by much of the populace. The Gregorian calendar was not accepted in eastern Christendom for several hundred years.
The Penang 'horse race' calendar
Although the Gregorian calendar is used here in Malaysia, the traditional Hijri, Chinese and Indian lunar calendars are commonly used as well for setting traditional festivals and events.
One particular calendar that has always been useful and a "must-have" among Penangites is the "horse racing" calendar, also known in Malay as the "lumba kuda" calendar. Remember the Lat cartoon where the father asked the son to get him the calendar "with the little horses"?
This calendar is multi-faceted, listing not just the Gregorian dates but also the the Hijri, Chinese and Indian lunar months. Here, public holidays are marked with festive graphics, school breaks are shaded in pale yellow and turf meets are highlighted with little galloping horses with jockeys. In same versions, the Chinese zodiac signs are placed at the top of each spread.
The 12 Gregorian months are printed on 12 sheets of light- weight paper stapled onto a decorative piece of cardboard of the same width. This cardboard doubles as an advertisement. The calendars come in various sizes – for wall hanging (24 by 27 cm), desktop (13 by 13 cm) and pocket (8.5 by 6.3 cm). The last is not recommended for the visually challenged.
Since the "horse racing" calendar is so useful for the local multi-cultural society, companies often package it as a corporate gift. If you are not lucky enough to receive one, it is available from book and stationery shops throughout Penang. It is uncertain if this type of calendar is available elsewhere. However, I have relatives in Australia and the UK who will request for a few copies to be posted to them every year. My aunty from Kuala Lumpur will also remind me to send her some as well.
Another year will soon come to an end. As we usher in the beginning of a new one, so the mad rush to get the 'horse racing' calendars begins. What better way to face the new year than with a calendar which is packed with all the necessary information needed for the year to come?
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 29 December 2021