Celebrate the Spin
by Raenell Dawn
"When is Leap Year?"
"Do you even get a birthday?"
"When do you celebrate?"
"What does it have to do with me?"
These are just a few of the questions I have heard over the years, and I want to take this opportunity to clear up any confusion (and potential angst) some of you may have about Leap Year Day.
The best place to start is with a brief history. Every four years, we have a Leap Year, which means there are 366 days rather than the typical 365. That extra day is always February 29.
This change in the calendar was created to maintain a balance with the natural cycle of the universe. A 365-day year is actually just a bit shy of the usual course of a year—and its four seasons. Without the extra day every fourth year, eventually the seasons would become misaligned with the calendar. Then, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere would gradually be celebrating Christmas in warm weather and wearing parkas during the summer.
Although a little variety may sound nice, we are creatures of habit. We want the seasons to start on the same day every year in order to plant and harvest on a predictable schedule, and to ensure that our holidays occur in their traditional season.
In ancient times, a month was considered a month by calculating the intervals from each new moon to new moon. It was called a synodic, or lunar, month and was measured as 29.53 days.
A solar year—the length of time required for the earth to revolve around the sun—is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and about 45 seconds. Because the lunar months were not equal to the solar year, weather conditions during a given month would slowly change over the years. In many places on earth, that would be a significant difference.
For example, think about the kind of weather in your hometown on September 1. If not for Leap Day, 50 years from now the kind of weather you would actually have on September 1 would be the one you'd normally expect in mid-October.
Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, who recognized the need for a stable, predictable calendar, conceived the idea of the addition of a Leap Year Day. With the help of the astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar first figured out that one year with 445 days was needed. He thought that would compensate for past irregularities in the calendar. That extra-long year was 46 B.C.
Then, it was in 47 B.C. that the system of three 365-day years followed by one 366-day Leap Year. The extra day was added to the last month of the year, which was February at that time.
Although Caesar was on the right track, the passing of several centuries revealed that his system wasn’t going to work: It created three Leap Years too many every 385 years. The months and seasons were not matching up as planned. Certain religious leaders were also concerned about the calendar-season mismatch because some of their holidays are associated with seasons. The development of a stable calendar was necessary because, for example, the spring equinox determines the date of Easter.
So, fifteen centuries after Caesar and Sosigenes first got the ball rolling on aligning the months and the seasons, Pope Gregory XIII and astronomer Christopher Clavius solved the problem by developing the Gregorian calendar, which we still use today.
They achieved this by first eliminating 11 days. So, in the year 1582, October 4 was immediately followed by October 15. Then, they made December the last month of the year instead of February. Finally, in order to eliminate the extra three Leap Years from occurring, they created the rule that century years (ending in 00) must be divisible by 400 to be designated a Leap Year. That meant that years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not Leap Years, but years 1600 and 2000 were.
February 29 is not officially named Leap Day. Because of this, dictionaries do not capitalize the words Leap Year Day or Leap Day. In addition, most calendar companies do not recognize it as a day of importance, so they don’t put the words Leap Year Day in print on February 29. It's a day that celebrates the calendar, and yet, most calendar companies miss that point.
My belief is that this wonderful and necessary day does not receive the recognition it deserves. My hope is that, with increased awareness of the key role February 29 has in balancing our months and seasons, more calendar companies will print the words “Leap Year Day” every February 29. In addition to printing “Leap Year Day” on calendars, all dictionaries should also revise their entries.
Leap Year Day is not a holiday, and it doesn't need to be a holiday. But it should get the recognition it deserves.
Yes, I was born on Leap Year Day. Too many people, including those in the media, have misconceptions and misunderstandings about February 29, which is why I continue to promote Leap Year Day awareness and hope you will too.
It's not about me. It's about Leap Year Day, February 29. And it's about time.
Celebrate the spin of the earth.
It's about time!