Once Upon a Time Warp (A Brief History of Leap Day)


It’s a tale as old as time: one of the greatest innovations of human timekeeping is credited to “Father of Leap Day” Julius Caesar, and where did he get the idea? From a woman.

Gather round, kids, for a brief story:

Once upon a time, there was a Prince with a Problem. His people, the Romans, were having some trouble keeping track of things. They, like most of humanity, had adopted a lunar calendar – first with only ten months (because, in a move that would make George R.R. Martin proud, winter was a “monthless time”), then eventually with January and February to bring it to twelve. But if the Prince and his countrymen had bothered to ask, any woman could have told them that letting life be ruled by a lunar cycle is just asking for trouble. And it was!

The Prince’s trouble was that the Man on the Moon takes on average 29.5 days to complete one of his cycles, which makes a 354-day year. Mother Earth, on the other hand, has more to do; she takes roughly 365.25 days to get all the way around the sun, which made the Roman calendar a full 11.25 days too short. Bummer. In just a few years, this communication gap had the Ides of March on the Ides of April, and that just sounds silly.

Like the Classic men that they were, the Prince and his Romans routinely ignored this inconvenient problem until it got so big they couldn’t; then they “fixed” it by inserting a random extra month into the year now and then, forcing that rascal Spring back where it was supposed to be.

Effective? Yes. Functional? Maybe. But much like a frat house, this was no way to live.

In a different part of the world, a Queen named Cleopatra and her Egyptians had devised a brilliant strategy for living in harmony with Nature. They kept a calendar of twelve tidy 30-day months, then made up the extra length with a five-day party at the end of each year. Every fourth year, that party went for six days.

Kids, if this sounds like the best idea humankind has ever had, you are right. We really missed the boat.

By the time Julius Caesar met Cleopatra, things had gotten way out of hand for the Romans. I mean, seriously out of hand – they’d ignored their time problem so long that Spring was hiding in Summer and snow was falling in May. Julius was impressed by Cleopatra’s brilliant calendar (and by everything else about her, pretty much), so he did what usually happens in these situations: stole it from her, made it a little less good, and proudly declared it his own. Typical.

First, Julius had to get his Roman calendar back on track, which could have happened by letting time take its course, but was more fun to do with brute force. (Bruté force? That would come later.) Declaring 46 B.C. the “Year of Confusion,” Julius Caesar made it 445 days long and forced that sneaky Spring Equinox back to March, where it belonged. He then sprinkled some extra days around the calendar (making his own month the biggest, of course), and decreed that every fourth year one extra day would be added to the end – which, for the Romans, was February.

Way to kill the week-long party, Julius. Way to kill the party.

And everyone lived happily ever after in harmony with Nature – except that they didn’t. There was a dark storm brewing, and it was called Accuracy. You see, kids, the problem is that Mother Earth only takes roughly 365.25 days to circle the sun. She actually takes 365.2422 days, which means that adding a full quarter day to every year then made the Roman calendar 11.2 minutes too LONG.

This seems like a small problem, sure, but like grains of sand in an hour glass, it adds up. In 128 years, the whole calendar was off by a full day, and by the time of Pope Gregory XIII more than 1500 years later, that sneaky bugger Spring was back in April instead of March.

Once again, the man in charge took drastic measures, removing ten days from October 1582 (no Halloween candy for you, kids), and declaring that, going forward, every century year – 1600, 1700, etc. – would have no Leap Day, unless that year was also divisible by 4.

That’s right, kids; bet you didn’t know how special that Leap Day was in 2000.

And so, with this new “Gregorian” calendar (because of course he renamed it after himself), we’ve got the whole 365.2422 days per year problem sorted out. For a while, anyway. It’s still not perfect, but it will be 3,300 years before we’re off by a whole day again. Let those guys worry about it.

The End*

*Or is it? The buried feminine roots of Leap Day seem to have caused some residual guilt that has seeped out in the form of misguided attempts at female empowerment. In Ireland and the U.K., Leap Day became traditionally the one day women were allowed to propose to men – and had to be compensated (with money or clothes) if turned down. In the U.S., this tradition became “Sadie Hawkins Day” (celebrated November 15th in common years), and in one city – Aurora, IL – single women are deputized on Leap Day to arrest men.

THIS YEAR, I say we tackle our own empowerment in a less condescending way, and use our special day to leap a woman one step closer to the Presidency. Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, after all – and the first day of Women’s History Month. Make some history, Hillary; one giant Leap for womankind.