FH#61 Didn’t Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year?



First off let me offer my most profound condolences to any ‘leaplings’ amongst you. To qualify you will have been born on 29th February. Many happy returns tomorrow and do enjoy your birthday party because your next one won’t be happening until 2024. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if you only aged one year in every four as well, but, of course, it doesn’t work like that does it? Does it?

Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb it doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days. It takes an additional six hours or so. As a consequence, with the creation of the Julian calendar in Rome, during the reign of Julius Caesar, an extra day was added at the end of February to keep everything in line. As the shortest month it needed all the help it could get. Later Caesar was stabbed to death in retaliation by a gang of ‘leaplings’  who bitterly resented the absence of birthday cards for three years out of every four. Maybe! No one actually checked their birth certs but it’s odds on they were all born on 29 February and had a grudge against Old Julie.

The problem, however, with the Julian calendar, is that there was a sting in the tail. Because the Earth is a highly uncooperative orb and doesn’t quite manage to make its way around the sun in 365 days and six hours. It take a few seconds less than that. So, you lose about three days every four hundred years. This meant that, by the 16th century Caesar’s calendar was starting to get out of whack with the seasons. For example, the Spring Equinox, which should have been on 23 March, actually fell on the 11th March. That was when Pope Gregory took a hand, tossed out the Julian calendar and replaced it with his own, which accounted for the precise amount of time to takes the earth to revolve around the sun. To cater for those vital few rogue seconds, certain years, which were actually divisible by four, were to be designated as non-leap years. They had to be divisible by four hundred as well. So the first year that would have had a leap day in February, but didn’t, was 1700. The next one will be 2100. So, if you are born tomorrow, and live to be eighty-four, you won’t  have a birthday for the last seven years of your life. Bummer!

By the way, does anyone have any idea what the other three years in the cycle are called? Full marks if you said ‘common’ years.

Among those unfortunate enough to be born on 29 February are the actors Joss Ackland and Denis Farina – in the case of Richard Ramirez, born in El Paso, Texas on 29 February 1960 it’s the rest of humanity that was visited by misfortune. He went on to become the serial killer known as the Night Stalker who terrorised Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s and murdered more than a dozen people. Born on the same day four years earlier was one of the most notorious female serial killers in legal history, Aileen Wournos. Is there something we need to know?

The good news for Spain, however, is that their current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, won’t be distracted by having to throw elaborate annual birthday parties because he too is a leapling.

By the way, when it comes to the tradition that a woman can propose marriage to a man on a leap day—as if they aren’t allowed to do so on any of the other 1460 days in the cycle—there’s a sting in the tail. Apparently if the man refuses the proposal he must give the woman a sum of money, or buy her a dress. That is, let’s face it, something you could turn to your advantage tomorrow. Assuming you’re a woman and there’s a man of your acquaintance who really doesn’t like you. Just be careful. Men can be very fickle. He might say ‘yes’.

So, as to the starter question, did Julius Caesar make a grand job of the Leap Year? … decidedly not. If Pope Gregory hadn’t intervened and chopped out a few of them we’d soon be having Christmas in November.