Disclaimer ‘Most of this column is based on facts… but only as far as I understand them!’
Maldwyn Pope Feb 29th, 2020
People will often tell you that no matter how bad the night may seem the sun will always rise the next morning. You can rely on the sun to turn up every day. That is true, but I have to tell you that sometimes you can’t totally rely on the sun when it comes to timing and today, 29th February is a case in point.
It’s not really the sun’s fault. It pretty much stays put and just shines. This is really an earth problem. So, the earth spins on its own axis every 24 hours, well its actually about 23 hours and 56 minutes. Then it takes just over 365 of these earth days to go all around the sun, well its actually about 365.2422 days.
Now in the old days this wasn’t a very big problem. Your typical stone ager would get up with the sun and then go to bed when it disappeared. As each day got longer in summer they adjusted to more work and when it got shorter in winter they knew that winter was on its way.
As societies got more sophisticated they looked for ways to measure time so they could have regular ‘annual’ festivals. Whilst the sun was pretty constant every day, the moon, the other major heavenly body seemed to keep its own pattern. That’s why the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Romans tied themselves to the seasons of the moon, a lunar calendar. Now that worked for a time but as a lunar month averages about 29.5 days and a lunar year has about 354 days in it after a little while the calendar and the seasons soon got out of sync.
Ancient Egyptian Calendar
The Egyptians noticed this and came up with a great idea. They used to add days on to the end of a year for partying, sort of like us with Twixtmas! Rome wasn’t quite so clever. By the time Julius Caesar was Emperor Rome’s lunar calendar was out by almost a quarter with the astronomical year. Of course, they didn’t celebrate Christmas in those days but if they had it would have been sometime in September/October, which again funnily enough is when Christmas seems to start in the supermarkets these days.
Roman Calendar from 67 BC
The wise men knew there was a problem and knew they could sort of solve it, but it took a Caesar to get things done. 46 BC was known as the Year of Confusion. I know what you’re thinking, we’ve had plenty of those lately. The reason why 46 BC was given the name was that to get back in line with the sun Caesar announced that he was going to add a couple of months to make the year last 445 days. They knew that there were 365 ¼ days in a solar year so decided from then on to add an extra day every fourth year to balance things out.
Problem solved? Well…that extra day every 4 years isn’t quite right so after a number of years we start to diverge again from the sun, 3 days out of every 400 years!
One of the first printed editions of the new Gregorian calendar. Still no images of cute kittens or family members!
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced a new calendar to take over from the Julian Calendar named after Julius Caesar. Not to be out done Gregory called his, the Gregorian Calendar. You might think that this was a triumph for science but whilst it did mark a little more accuracy in our time keeping, the real reason for the change was that the slipping days meant that Easter was ending up in the wrong place compared to the lunar calendar and the Pope couldn’t have that now could he.
So, Pope Gregory changed some of the rules. He kept the rule where every year that could be divided by 4 would have an extra day, it would be a leap year. That’s why we have one in 2020. But new rules were added to keep the system working longer term. If the year could be divided by 100 then there would not be a leap year, but if the year can be divided by 400 then there is a leap year. That’s why there were leap days added in 1600 and 2000 but not 1700, 1800 or 1900.
There are unexpected consequences of leap years. When I was a kid I was sorry for those children born on Feb 29th. Being a leap year baby meant you only had a proper birthday every 4 years. Nowadays I’m slightly jealous. If I’d been a leap year baby I’d now only be in my teens rather than looking forward to a bus pass!!
Leap years have lots of customs associated with them. Maybe the most famous custom seems a little outdated in 2020. In days gone by a leap year meant that women were allowed to propose marriage. There were consequences for a reluctant bridegroom. If the proposal was turned down in Scotland the bloke had to pay a fine of £1. In Denmark the fine was 12 pairs of gloves to allow the woman to hide the fact she had no wedding ring.
The Greeks thought getting married in a leap year was just bad luck. In Taiwan daughters are expected to cook their parents pig trotter noodle and the French apparently read ‘La Bougie du Sapeur’ a newspaper that’s only published every 4 years.
These are just some of the unusual world traditions associated with 29th February.
Of course, tomorrow is 1st March. Here in Wales we have very sensible traditions like little boys eating raw leaks and little girls wearing aprons over checked skirts whilst wearing big black hats. In my opinion the world could learn a lot from the Welsh at this time of year.