We all know that every four years an extra day is added to the month of February to help synchronize our calendar with the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun. But, how did this unusual solution come about?
In ancient Rome, a 355-day calendar was observed with an extra 22-day month inserted every two years. Not only was this plan awkward, but feast days started sliding into different seasons. Julius Caesar put his astronomer, Sosigenes, on the problem. He proposed a 365-day year with an extra day every four years to make up for the fact that the actual time for an orbit is more than 365 days. Although a better solution, even this was not perfect. More on that later.
But why February 29th? Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus didn’t like that his month, August, had only 29 days while July, named after his predecessor Julius, had 31. At the time, February had 30 days. He altered the calendar to add 2 days to August so that it was the same as July. And those two days were taken from February. February, then, became the shortest month and the logical place to add a leap day.
Although a better solution than the previous 355-day calendar, it was mathematically clear that a single orbit of the earth was actually a little less than 365.25 days. (Actually, 365 days – 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds.) Pope Gregory XIII (who introduced the Gregorian calendar which we still use today) and his astronomers solved this problem in the following way. The years that are divisible by 100, but not by 400, are not leap years. In effect, this allows the loss of three leap days every 400 years. And for now, the math works. (Eventually, even this solution will cause a slow shift in the calendar and need to be rethought. In about 10,000 years!)
So, how did February 29th end up with so many traditions and superstitions attached to it? Some of these traditions may stem from early times when leap year day was not recognized by English law. The fact that February 29th had no legal standing invited a break with convention. One of the most pervasive traditions allows women to propose to men on this date. Folklore attributes this tradition to a couple of historic women. In one case, St. Bridget is said to have complained to St. Patrick that many women were waiting too long for their suitors to propose. It is said that St. Patrick then gave women the one day every four years in which to turn the tables. Others believe this tradition began with Queen Margaret of Scotland in 1288 who ruled that a woman could propose to any man she wanted on February 29th and there would be a penalty if he refused – a fine or a gift of a silk dress or a pair of gloves. It seems unlikely that this is true since Queen Margaret was only 5 years old at the time. However the tradition began, it became fairly widespread throughout European in the 19th century.
Other countries look on February 29th with suspicion. In Greece, couples avoid getting married in a leap year because they believe it is bad luck. In Italy, several proverbs warn against planning anything important in a leap year. Russians believe leap year brings more extreme weather patterns and a greater risk of death. And the Scots believe “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.”
From a purely practical point of view, if you are paid on a fixed annual or monthly salary, you are working for free on February 29th! And prisoners in jail over leap day serve one extra day. In Vermont, we look at February 29th as one more day of winter, and we’re happy about that. For things to do and places to stay in Vermont, check out Vermont.com.