It all has to do with the fact that the Earth’s orbit around the sun takes longer than 365 days – 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds more, to be precise. By the time Julius Caesar ruled, the calendar was so out of sync with Nature’s seasons and respective festivities that, aided by his astronomer and mathematician Sosigenes, he took measures to put it right: first Caesar proclaimed an extra-long year – 445 days – so that the calendar would once more match the four seasons. Then he decreed a cycle of three 365-day years alternating with one 366-day year, the leap year. It worked – for some time. However, 15 centuries later, the calendar was once again at odds with Nature and social events because of too many leap years. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII found the solution in the form of what came to be known as the Gregorian Calendar: that year the calendar jumped from October 4 to 15 to compensate for the excess in leap days; from then on years divisible by 100 were no leap years except when they could also be divided by 400 (1600 and 2000 were leap years). Although the quadricentennial regulation still overshoots the total amount of time needed by the Earth to go round the sun in 4 years, it is only for about 26 seconds!
People who are born on 29 February are called “Leapies” – approximately 4 million in the world. The question is: When do they celebrate their birthays in the years without a leap? Some suggestions …
A few curiosities of the day:
- In 1228 the Scottish Parliament passed a Leap Year Act that allowed women to propose to men on that day. Apparently this tradition had begun in Ireland in the 5th century, and is now practised in several countries (and sometimes on different days), although there are various explanations as to its origin.
- The switch in European countries from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar was gradual, taking more than 300 years in some. In Russia, for example, the Orthodox church followed the Julian Calendar until after the 1917 Revolution (the calendar changed in 1918, when the first day of February 1918 was the 14th). So, by the Gregorian Calendar, the October Revolution actually happened in November. Turkey was the last to officially adopt the Gregorian Calendar on 1 January 1927.
- In its February edition of 2004, the American Boy Scouts’ magazine News from
Boys’ Life claimed that there is a family Henriksen of Stavanger, Norway, that had three siblings born on consecutive Leap Year Days – Heidi on February 29, 1960; Olav on February 29, 1964; and Leif-Martin on February 29, 1968.
You may enjoy reading the following:
- Tony Mann‘s more detailed explanation of the Leap Day;
- BBC’s 10 things one should know;
- The Telegraph‘s suggestions of interesting leap-day facts.
Source: Telegraph Picture of the Day, 29 February 2012