Friday Feb 29, 2008

Happy Leap Day

When I was a kid I disdained leap years because it added one extra day before my birthday. Nowadays I don't mind the delay...
As an avid reader of the foreign press, I came across a most interesting explanation for the 29th of February, this excerpted from an Israeli newspaper:

It was Julius Caesar who ultimately discovered, in 45 B.C.E., that time was out of joint. Following both Egyptian astronomers and his own experts, he decreed that that particular year would have 445 days, and from then on each year would have 12 months of 30 or 31 days each, including a short February with an additional day every four years. He also appropriated a month for himself - July (originally Quintilius, the fifth month, which now became the seventh). Augustus, who followed him on the Roman throne, added three more days to the year and named the eighth month (Sextilius, originally the sixth month) after himself: August. The Senate suggested that his successor, Tiberius, name a month after himself, but he was practical enough to refuse the honor by asking: "And what will you do by the time there will be 13 Caesars?"
 
Almost 1,600 years then passed before those who cared about matters calendrical, and had enough authority, decided that something had to be done to align the solar year (measured according to the number of rotations the sun made around the earth - at least that's what they thought then) with the lunar one (the time it took the moon to orbit the earth 12 times). In 1582 - counting from the year Jesus was born, although his birth was probably a couple of years earlier - Pope Gregorius XIII dropped 10 days from the calendar and decreed that from then on, every four years, February would have 29 days, not 28. The exception to this rule was that centenary years (i.e., 1700, 1800) would not have an extra day. The exception to this exception was that centenary years that are divisible by 400 would have an extra day.

As the pope was Catholic, it took the Protestant countries almost 200 years to follow suit. Russia and Greece came around only in the 20th century. That is why, in the history of the world's calendars, there was a 30th day in February - twice: Once in 1712 in Sweden, when they were trying to rectify errors made by their astronomers, and the second time when leaders of the Soviet Revolution wanted in 1929 to make a switch from the seven-day week to a five-day week and 30-day month. In 1931 they gave up the idea, and anyway, Pravda did not accept the ruling, kept faith with the Gregorian calendar, and there never was an issue dated February 30th in their history.

The Greek astronomer Meton, who dodged the Athenian draft in the fifth century B.C.E., calculated that 19 lunar years plus 209 days, which amounts to seven months (six of them with 30 days, and one with 29), equals 19 solar years.
This never works out correctly, as the solar year has a bit less than 365-and-one-quarter days (to be precise, it has approximately 365.242149 days), whereas the lunar year has a little more than 354-and-one-third days (precisely, approximately, 354.3734 days). They differ by little less than 11 days (10.8674, to be almost precise). But we valiantly and desperately will persist in showing that while the universe behaves mostly in a maddeningly arbitrary way, there is a method to it. In 3,000 years' time, we will have an extra day in the year, and this has to be fixed and fit into the calendar, and the sooner the better.

And here is some Irish trivia:

A tradition was introduced many centuries ago to allow women to propose to men during a leap year. This privilege of proposing was restricted to leap day in some areas. Leap day was sometimes known as “Bachelors’ Day”. A man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage offer from a woman.
The tradition’s origin stemmed from an old Irish tale referring to St Bridget striking a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men every four years. This old custom was probably made to balance the traditional roles of men and women in a similar way to how the leap day balances the calendar







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