Some Random Musings on Leap Day

Is there anything more artificial than the calendar?  Hours, days, months, years – everything is an arbitrary human construction, superimposed on the natural world.  If you don’t believe me, then consider this:  the “civil” calendar year is five hours and eight minutes longer than the actual solar year. 

Whose idea was this?  Why not just match the length of the calendar year to the solar year?  You’d only have to make each day an extra 0.9586849315068493 minutes long.   Ah, but therein lies the problem.  ANY inaccuracy will eventually result in December 25 happening just as the tomatoes are getting ripe.

Technically, this is the solar system’s fault, although no one has found a way to hold it accountable.  The earth does not travel around the sun in an even number of revolutions.  We go around the sun once every 365.243 days, meaning that we pick up about a quarter of a day each year.  This means that every four years, we have picked up a whole extra day that we have to do something with.  Since this STILL isn’t accurate enough, the seasons and days continue to drift, very slowly, around the calendar that the solar system won’t cooperate with, and this is why the official first day of spring moves.

The Julian calendar, used by astronomers and other picky types, recalculates years by the position of the earth and makes every year 365.25 days; while it’s accurate for scientific purposes, it allows days to drift shockingly fast, so that yes, we will have snow in August.  The Gregorian calendar fiddles with days to keep the spring equinox (when daylight and dark are both 12 hours) somewhere in the neighborhood of March 21.  This keeps Thanksgiving and daffodils from happening at the same time, but it also means that every four years, we need an extra day to keep it right.  Eventually, the first day of spring will move around the calendar to some untenable position, but it will take thousands of years.

This William Hogarth painting of election mayhem has a slate on the floor in the right foreground that says "Give us our eleven days!"

In the mid-18th Century, the Julian and Gregorian calendars were off from each other by eleven whole days, which meant that people in England went to bed on October 5 and awoke on October 16.  Some die-hards insisted on using the old dates for many years after the intercalation, which resulted in books citing dates as “old style” and “new style.”  Very confusing.  People protested that they had been robbed of eleven days of their lives, possibly because if they had a birthday in those eleven days, they missed their own parties.  The idea that eleven days could just evaporate struck some people as wrong, even though the days and the calendar themselves were just arbitrary things.

We still don’t realize how arbitrary our calendar is.  It has “problems” that we don’t even recognize as problems because we’re used to them.  Because the year is based on keeping the spring and fall equinoxes on the right days, the phases of the moon (called a lunar month) circulate freely through the calendar.  (Once upon a time, people used the 28-day lunar month as the yearly cycle, and the first of the month was always the new moon.  I digress.)  Easter, which is based on the lunar calendar, moves around in the Gregorian year for this reason. 

Next, our calendars end.  The Mayans, remember, were correct for many hundreds of years, but OURS run out every December 31.  It keeps the puppy- and baby-photographers in business, but makes it hard to plan in advance.  We just assume that the days of the month will migrate through the days of the week, but on a fixed lunar calendar, they don’t. Our calendar is messy.

 Finally, we have this inconvenient accumulation of extra time.  It has to go somewhere, and since February was already low on days, sticking the extra there seemed like a good idea.  Therefore, this morning, as I utterly fail to get anything productive done, I think it’s because  I am trying to work during a day that doesn’t technically exist, or perhaps fades in and out of existence like a Cheshire cat.  I think we should designate February 29th as a holiday, during which absolutely nothing has to happen – no parties, presents, or fireworks, but just a day to catch up before the next four years start.  Just because it’s on the calendar doesn’t mean we have to acknowledge it.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Elizabeth Victory on February 29, 2012 at 9:38 am

    Interesting thoughts! I am definitely trying to NOT think of this day as just any other day… and instead think of it as a bonus day, almost like extra time from God. I’m a big fan of making days special… but I like the idea of acknowledging it but not acknowledging it 🙂


  2. Posted by Kris E. on February 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Hmm. In a lunar calendar (such as the Hebrew calendar), you periodically have to have a leap month. Just think–a whole month we wouldn’t have to do anything–or even acknowledge!


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