Ten Best: Things about leap years

by Amy Kingsley

Its origin

Aloysius Lilius devised the Gregorian calendar in the year 1582, updating the Julian calendar that had been giving the Vatican fits due to its leisurely vernal drift. Before Lilius got his hands on it, the Roman calendar was 10 days longer than it is now, which meant that Easter crept forward every year, sometimes happening as late as summer. Unfortunately the new, shorter calendar was a bit too short. So every four years February takes an extra day. A leap day.

Study up

Got your calculators ready? Good. The leap year rule goes a little something like this: Every year that is divisible by four is a leap year, unless it’s a year divisible by 100. But if the year is a multiple of 400, it is a leap year. So 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not leap years, but 2000 was. That means the length of the year is calculated like this: 365 + _ – 1/100 + 1/400 = 365.2425. THIS FORMULA IS DICKED UP: 365-X?

Astrology much?

The language of calendars evokes all kinds of New Age associations. For instance, the technical term for a leap year is intercalary year, which sounds a little bit like the language of a religion whose adherents strap on Nikes and await Hale-Bopp. The leap day is a perfect opportunity to reflect on our human imperfections and the great swirling universe whisking us along our path.

Mathematicians holla

Lilius only figured the length of the year to the fourth decimal point, which was perfectly respectable in the 16th century. But nowadays you can hardly spit without hitting mainframe computers and gamma ray telescopes. Scientists know the Gregorian calendar is in for another adjustment when that fifth decimal rolls around sometime in the next 2,000 to 4,000 years.

Happy birthday!

Everyone knows someone born on a leap day. These individuals, called leaplings, suffer the childhood indignity of having a true birthday only once every four years. As leaplings age, their birthday becomes more blessing than curse, since it entails less bald-faced lying. Clarey likes to tell stories of the eighth birthday party he and his friend threw for a 32-year-old leap baby.

Signs, signs

So, to most of us who dwell in the post-spiritual realm, the leap day is just another day at the office. But the shifting, jostling nature of the calendar year gives fits to some of the world’s major religions. The Hebrew calendar hews to a number of arcane rules, including edicts that years never start on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The Koran forbids leap months, which would otherwise be required to keep the Islamic calendar on track.

Turned tables

A tradition said to date back to 5th century Ireland permits women to make marriage proposals only in leap years. Queen Margaret of Scotland allegedly updated the rule in the 13th century by requiring men who refused women’s proposals to pay a fine that ranged from a single kiss to a silk gown. Because men fretted so much about the fines, in some places the rule was restricted to the actual leap day.

Cultural differences

The Greeks are a lot like the Irish, what with their prolific drinking, fervent religiosity and fondness for folk music. But the two cultures diverge on the impact of leap years on romance. Whereas its perfectly acceptable for an Irish woman to ask for a man’s hand in marriage on leap days, Greeks swear off the whole practice of matrimony during a leap year. It’s bad luck, according to Greek legend, to schedule a wedding during a leap year, which is a reprieve for any man bound by the aforementioned Irish tradition.

Sea change

A little-known consequence of global warming is its potential impact on our calendars. Not only should you reconsider keeping beachfront property and planting crops in areas slated for desertification, you also may need to revise your basic notion of time. That’s because tidal acceleration, which is affected by sea level rise and post-glacial rebound, slows the rotation of the earth.

Party time

You can’t call it the Sixth Annual Worldwide Leap year Festival since it’s divided over some 24 years. The small town of Anthony, Texas, in conjunction with neighboring Anthony, NM, hosts this party every four years for leaplings across the globe. There’s going to be cake, golf, chuck-wagon breakfasts, parades and hot-air balloon rides. Sounds like fun!