Hold on to sanity as millennium looms

London Observer/January 5, 1999
By Robin McKie & Hadley Freeman

Here are some handy tips for the new year: Stay away from Jerusalem. Be nice to your bank manager. Stock up on champagne. And -- oh yes -- keep an eye out for an all-consuming global conflict.

In other words, prepare for the year of Pre-Millennium Tension. If nothing else, 1999 promises to bring us 12 months of unbridled lunacy and predictions of mayhem as cults, preachers, publishers and astrologers (not forgetting the simply credulous and gormless) vie to be Idiots of the Epoch.

Keeping your sanity will be tricky, though some preventive action can be taken.

For a start, stay away from the planet's holy places. Most millennial madness has a quasi-religious tone. Israel, which has already deported two immigrants who were preparing to attack the Temple Mount "to precipitate Armageddon," is expecting 5 million pilgrims for the millennium.

But that's nothing compared with what some are predicting for 1999. According to the Association for Research and Enlightenment, "in 1999 we will be moving towards the grand Central Sun and will have crossed a bridge out of the darker ages."

Sounds cool -- until you realize this passage will be marked by an earthquake that will sink the southwestern United States, ash that will cover the Earth's poles, meteor showers "suddenly and everywhere."

Nor is the association alone. According to Nostradamus, "the year 1999, in the seventh month, from the sky will come a great King of Terror."

The more pragmatic among us will be stocking up on New Year champagne, threatening supplies for the Big Party, while hospitals and registrars are expecting a rash of babies called Millie or Dawn.

Of course, millennia don't come very often. The last one expired in 999, when people behaved very oddly indeed, according to Stephen Skinner's book "Millennium Prophesies":

"In Europe generally, a sort of mass hysteria took hold as the year-end approached. This atmosphere led to some astonishing happenings.

"Some men forgave each other their debts, husbands and wives rashly confessed infidelities, convicts were released from prison, poachers made truces with their liege lords."

So perhaps your bank manager will forget your overdraft or your spouse will forgive you for sleeping with your secretary. Or perhaps not.

The previous thousand-year epoch raises an even trickier issue. That millennium ended on the last day of the year 1 B.C., and should have been followed by the year A.D. 0. Only it wasn't.

Thanks to the arithmetical eccentricities of a sixth-century monk called Dionysius Exiguus ("Dennis the Short," to you), who had been charged with restructuring the calendar around the birth of Christ, the year was labeled A.D. 1.

This oversight means we are going to celebrate the new millennium on the wrong date. For if the first year of the first millennium was A.D. 1, the first year of the third millennium should be 2001. So next year is not the last of this millennium, but the second-to-last -- an observation supported by previous celebrations for new centuries. These took place in 1701 and 1801.

The New York Times even screamed the headline: "Twentieth Century's Triumphant Entry" on Jan. 1, 1901.

So ignore those millennium parties. Hold your fire for another year. You won't be missing anything.

Or perhaps not.

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