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The stories behind leap year

This year, 2020, is a leap year. We get that extra day because time needs to be counted. Every four years our calendar must come into agreement with the calendar that governs the universe.

You can thank Julius Caesar, the catalyst behind the origin of leap year in 45 BC.

A leap year is a year with 366 days, instead of the usual 365. Leap years are necessary because the actual length of a year is 365.242 days, not 365 days. Every four years this extra day is added to the calendar on February 29th.

The additional 24 hours are built into the calendar to ensure that it stays in line with Earth’s movement around the sun.

The difference might seem trivial, but over centuries that missing quarter of a day per year can add up. To ensure the consistency with the true astronomical year, it’s necessary to periodically add in an extra day to make up the lost time and get the calendar back in synch with the universe.

Before Caesar launched the Julian Calendar, the Roman year was only 355 days plus an extra 27 or 28-day month every other year, for an average year of 366.25 days.

Julius Caesar simplified things by adding days to different months of the year to create the 365-day calendar. He brought together the great minds of the time, such as the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who helped him revamp the Roman calendar to include 12 months and 365 days. Every fourth year following the 28th day of Februarius (February 29) one day was to be added, making every fourth year a leap year.

Caesar’s model helped change up the Roman calendar, but it had one small problem. Since the solar year is only .242 days longer than the calendar year and not an even .25, adding a leap year every four years leaves an annual surplus of roughly 11 minutes. Losing those minutes meant that the Julian Calendar drifted off course by one day every 128 years, and by the 14th century it had strayed 10 days off the solar year. To fix the glitch, Pope Gregory XIII instituted a revised “Gregorian Calendar” in 1582. In this model, leap years occur every four years except for years evenly divisible by 100 and not by 400.

There is also a tradition associated with February 29 in leap years. Long ago, Leap Day also was known as “Ladies’ Day” or “Ladies’ Privilege,” it was the only time when women were free to propose to men. It is thought that this event may have been based on a Scottish law in the 1200s or on an Irish legend.

According to the Irish legend, a nun named St. Brigid of Kildare complained to St. Patrick that women were being strung along by their beaus, waiting to be asked for their hand in marriage.

Patrick took pity and decided that women could, indeed, ask men to marry them — on that one day in February, every four years.

Sadie Hawkins Day, an American folk event, made its debut on November 15, 1937, when cartoonist Al Capp, creator of the Li’l Abner comic strip, introduced the idea of a day in fictitious Dogpatch, USA, when all unmarried ladies, including the character Sadie Hawkins, could pursue their men. If the men were caught, marriage was unavoidable.

The idea took off in real life in November 1938, when the first recorded “girls-ask-boys” Sadie Hawkins Day dance was held.

The date of Sadie Hawkins Day events can vary. The Almanac uses the first Saturday in November. So, there’s no need to merge the leap year day Irish legend together with Sadie Hawkins Day, even though they are a similar tradition.

Here are a couple of major events that happened on leap day:

On February 29, 1504, Christopher Columbus, stranded in Jamaica, used a predicted lunar eclipse to frighten hostile natives into providing food for his crew.

On February 29, 1692, the first warrants of the Salem witch trials were issued.

On February 29, 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar, for her role in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.”


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