Leap Year Is Adjustment Time For
The Astronomical Calendar
This is one of those years when our calendars give us an extra day. It’s been happening for a long time.
Julius Caesar was the founder of leap year, although he didn’t originate the idea. Egyptian astronomers had been proposing adding an extra day to the calendar for a long time before Caesar’s day, but couldn’t get the rest of the Egyptians to go along with the idea. Caesar, however, didn’t need to get anyone else’s approval and in 45 B.C., he added it to his calendar. It’s location at the end of February made more sense then. The Roman calendar began on March 1, so the extra day was really being made at the end of their year.
There were some problems at first. For one thing, apparently the Romans didn’t really understand what was happening, and it held a leap year every third year for about 20 years. Eventually, they got that problem straightened out, and leap year continued to occur every four years for more than a thousand years.
Then some errors began to be noticeable. The reason we have leap year is to keep our years in line with the sun and the seasons. Astronomically, a year is the length of time it takes the earth to circle the sun, 365.2425 days. A 365-day year leaves 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds unaccounted for. Every four years the extra day will pick up all of that extra time, plus a little bit over.
How do we get rid of that little bit over? In three out of every four “century years,” we do not have a leap year. Only the century years that are divisible by 400 get to have a leap year. Thus, there was no leap year in 1700, 1800, 1900, but there was one in the year 2000. And that makes it all come out close enough to keep our calendar in tune with the sun.
Anyway, Caesar’s calendar by the 13th century had picked up enough of these discrepancies to be off by about 7 days, as was discovered by a monk named John of Hollywood. He called it to the attention of the authorities, but nothing was done about it for another 3 centuries, when Pope Gregory got rid of the by then extra 10 days that had accumulated by simply eliminating them from that year and amended the calendar so it wouldn’t happen again.
In England and elsewhere in Europe, as early as the 5th century, leap year came to be known as Cupid’s Calendar. It was the year in which the tables were turned in matchmaking and a lady could properly propose to a man. In 1288, it became an actual law in Scotland; France passed a similar one a few years later; the tradition was legalized in Italy in the 15th century; and law books in England by 1600 stated: “As oft lepe yeare doth return ye ladyes have ye privleg of making love to ye men, which they doe either by wordes or by lookes, as to them seemeth proper.”
Don’t expect to find much in the way of leap year collectibles. There have been a few postcards made which recognize the event, but very little else. Incidentally, it has been common law since a royal proclamation of Henry VIII in 1236 that all who are born on February 29 are legally entitled to celebrate their birthdays on February 28.
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