(RNS) On Dec. 21, 2012, the Mayan calendar reaches the end of its 5,126 epoch. That’s a cause of consternation among some end-times adherents, and amusement among some descendants of the Maya.
Fresh from having survived one end-of-the-world prediction—a two-stage affair covering 2011’s drop-dead dates of May 21 and Oct. 21—we now plunge into the countdown for End Times 2012.

Should you be inclined, you can use your smart phone to check how many days are remaining before a date that was carved into rock by a pre-Columbian civilization.

You can blame—or credit—the Maya for the commotion. Or, more likely, their New Age adherents.

Sure, the ancient Mayan calendar does technically end at Dec. 21, 2012.

But Mayan experts say it’s simply a case of one long Mayan epoch—of 5,126 years—coming to an end, in much the same way the 1900s came to an end.

“I don’t think the Mayan put a picture of Porky Pig at the end of their calendar and said, ‘That’s all, folks,’” said Jefferson Harman, a Pompton Lakes, N.J., “intuitive,” or dream-interpreter, who runs a workshop called “Beyond 2012.”

All this calendar talk is news to Firmo Choc, a 39-year-old Mayan farmer who lives in a rural village in Belize. The first he heard of the New Age crowd’s fuss over his culture’s ancient calendar was recently, when his American employer told him about it.

Not only was Choc taken aback to hear the end of the world prediction attributed to his people, he was surprised outsiders are even familiar with the calendar. He, his family, his friends and neighbors all use the standard Western calendar.

“The Mayan who surround me have no idea that some calendar their ancestors created indicates that a great change is to occur in 2012. They are just hoping their corn and cacao crops will be plentiful so their family won’t starve in 2012,” said Choc’s employer, Anne-Michelle Marsden—a Rutgers University professor who lives in Belize.

About a decade ago, Marsden spent her sabbatical year in Belize producing a documentary called “The Living Maya.” Choc travels to the coast by bus along unpaved roads twice a week to work as her groundskeeper.

He has eight children; the oldest boy had to stop his schooling to help on the family cacao farm. He’s Catholic, but participates in the Mayan Deer Dance ceremony when it is celebrated in his village.

Choc is not concerned about the world ending any time soon. He’s mostly concerned about supporting his family. School fees are very expensive, wages are low and job prospects for non-farmers poor.

Mayans in parts of Guatemala and Mexico still refer to the ancient Mayan calendar, consulting it in part because of the belief that certain glyphs, or pictures that accompany the days, influence events in much the way astrological signs are said to hold sway.

The Maya wouldn’t be the first civilization to come up with an increasingly complicated system for tracking time. The most obvious way to mark time is by using the moon’s cycle. However, this doesn’t match up neatly with the solar year, or the time the Earth takes to circle the sun. So every culture’s calendar has had to insert little amendments along the way to account for those burps and hiccups of time.

Christians tinkered with the length of the months, dumped the Julian calendar (for the most part) and threw in Leap Year. Jews insert a lunar month every now and then. Muslims simply decided against trying to have each month fall during the same season every year.

The Mayans just kept adding to their equation of time, creating a dizzying combination of Round and Long Form calendars, peppered by little symbols, or glyphs. Some interpret the calendar to include 13 “tones,” or characteristics that affect the day.

Over the years, this has proved to be a veritable cottage industry for archeologists, anthropologists and numerologists, who have been throwing out theories of interpretation since the turn of the (previous) century.

With very little in the way of written documentation from the calendar’s originators, the theories are hard to prove—or disprove.

The “end times” proposition has been floating around for 30 years or so by New Age spiritualists like the late Terence McKenna, who claimed it signaled the start of a period of broader human consciousness.

Denise Saracco, a self-described shaman and massage therapist who runs a workshop called “Demystifying the Mayan Calendar” out of the Peaceful Paths store in Butler, N.J., learned about the calendar as part of her two-year shaman apprenticeship.

Between the calendar’s 20 glyphs and 13 tones, “it can get crazy complex,” she said. Saracco feels 2012 is a key date—although she stops short of predicting what will happen.

She foresees a shift in collective priorities, away from materialism to a simpler life of more mutual respect and less divisiveness.

“Is it the end of the world? No,” she said. “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

(Kathleen O’Brien writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J)

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