“So, you’re about my age, I think,” I said to Nick. “How old are you?”
“Well, I will celebrate my 11th birthday in 18 months.”
Nick was a psychiatrist I worked with and I was 39 years old, so I began to wonder if he was channeling one of our delusional clients until he revealed …
“I was born February 29.”
To my credit, I immediately recognized the significance of this date and we had a lovely conversation about Leap Day (otherwise known as intercalary year or bissextile year). Turned out, Nick enjoyed his unique birthday and had lots of humorous observations about the whole topic. Some of them are included here as well as contributions from my teenage son who is, apparently, a calendar geek.
Nick shares his birthday with Lord Byron, which might lend credence to the astrologers’ belief that people born on Leap Day often have unusual talents.
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It’s really an odd concept, when you consider it, that one year in four would have an extra day. I mean, shouldn’t a year just be a year? Uh … no!
A year is simply a segment of cyclical time that can measured and described in any number of ways. Some cultures tabulate the turning of the sun, others the waxing and waning of the moon, still others the dance of the stars and planets in the heaven. The ancient Celts pegged their calendar to the seasons. In our modern time, there are fiscal years, tax years, school years, and liturgical years.
All this makes creating an accurate and practical calendar astonishingly complicated. Take a basic fact — the Earth takes 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds to turn on its axis. Y
Then the moon circles the Earth, spinning as it does. The sun reflecting off the moon’s face is what we call the moon phases — from thinnest silver crescent to shining full disk. A complete moon cycle takes 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 28 seconds for a month.
The Earth is a satellite of the sun. As it orbits, it draws closer and then retreats, tilting one pole and then the other toward that blast furnace in the center of our solar system. This revolution results in the seasons. One orbit takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. We call it the solar year.
So, you see the problem, right? While we might wish things to be very symmetrical and ordered, the natural cycle of celestial bodies does not conform to our OCD. Calendar scientists have tried many times to fix this lack of synchronicity, resulting the modified Gregorian calendar (itself a modification of the Julian calendar) that is based on a cycle of 400 years comprising 146,097 days, giving a year of average length 365.2425 days. It does this by creating leap years that are omitted in years divisible by 100, but not divisible by 400. Yeah, only a mathematician could make that one up.
It was around the 1500s when the Roman Catholic church notices that Easter seemed to be occurring later and later in the spring and that just wouldn’t do because nobody is really into pastel eggs in October.
The Julian calendar did not calculate leap years very well … there were too many of them, so the calendar was adjusted so that leap years occur every four years EXCEPT for years ending in 00. This turned out to be too large of a correction and it still didn’t fix the problem of Easter occuring too late in spring, so Pope Gregory XIII ordered the year 1582 shortened by 10 days.The last day of the Julian calendar was October 4, 1582 and the first day of the Gregorian calendar was October 15, 1582. Historians would probably like to dig Gregory up and pummel him to death because not every country adopted this theft of days right away, so it makes for some very interesting historical discrepancies. For example — the England and American colonies did not adjust their calendar until 1754. That’s 180 years where they were using the wrong calendar, so if the date of some event really matters, historians have a hard slog of figuring it out.
The perceived theft of 10 days caused widespread discontent. Apparently there were riots in some countries because some landlords used the 10-day loss as an excuse to charge early for land rents. It even spawned a school of conspiracy theorists who believed the Roman Catholic Church adjusted the calendar to make up history or to adjust events to match prophesies. There were actually movements that called for the return of the 10 days.
So, here we are in the 21st century and we’re still trying to figure out the calendar. Maybe someday we’ll figure out a way to make it accurately depict the world we live in without all the complicated mechanizations, but … I wouldn’t count on it — although the International Fixed Calendar really has some merits.