The mysteries of leap day inspire fiction and science

The Argument

Feb. 29, the darling of the Gregorian calendar, has yielded delightful confusion since 1582.


February 29, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

It's not some New Age metaphor or Taoist riddle. We all learned the rhyme in elementary school -- it was one of those catchy little ditties like "I before E, except after C, or when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh."

Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November.

All the rest have thirty-one,

though February's underdone

with twenty-eight -- hold the line!

Leap Year makes it twenty-nine.

Thus, as with any other astronomical anomaly, like Halley's Comet or a solar eclipse, this very day -- leap day -- won't come again for another four years. That little wrinkle in time has fascinated historians, scientists, theologians, astronomers, writers and a host of other folks (among them Gilbert and Sullivan and Queen Victoria) since 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII formalized leap day with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by which we set our various clocks today.

The problem of trying to find the time isn't a 21st-century stressor but has actually been stalking humans for a good millennium or more, since before the Swiss made the cuckoo sing and before publishers made as much money from marketing calendars as from selling serious literature.

So what is leap year? It's the official hocus-pocus used to ensure that how we count time is in sync with how the Earth and the sun count it. The Earth's orbit runs just a little longer than 365 days. The addition of leap day ensures that our calendar year keeps on lining up with the orbit year. E. G. Richards' Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History (Oxford University Press, 460 pages, $16.95) provides a succinct chronology of the history of these discoveries and their resolution: Julius Caesar got the leap year ball rolling during a chat with an astronomer who explained that the Roman calendar (355 days) didn't match the astronomical calendar. Hence the Julian calendar, which kept semi-accurate time through the addition of an extra day every four years until some confusion set in when someone started counting it at every three years.

Insufficient communications skills back in those days led to another round of change, when 67 days got tacked on to try to set things right. (The people didn't like the extra taxes, however.) Enter Pope Gregory XIII. He realized that eventually Christmas would occur in the spring, or Easter in the winter.

He removed a small chunk of 11 days from the calendar (if you were born in mid-October you lost your birthday for more than four years as well as your wages) and then set it to rights with the leap year principle.

The non-papist world wasn't as keen on the idea, however, and as a consequence it was 1754 before England grudgingly got with the program. (Russian and Greek Orthodox churches stuck with the Julian calendar, which is why their Christmas and Easter fall 11 days after the standard Christian dates.)

The rules of leap year were set by the pope, the voice of God on Earth, and only God may be able to fully explain why February, among other leap year mysteries. Why, for example, is there an entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Modern Library, 352 pages, $19.95) dated Wednesday 29 February 1659? Which calendar was Pepys using, the Julian or the Gregorian, and if he was using the latter (heretically), why?

Pepys' entry notes quite a lot of drinking here and there, which may explain why Pepys thought there was a leap day in a year indivisible by four.

These and other arcane tidbits can be found in The Leap Year Book (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 64 pages, $11.95) by Barbara Sutton-Smith. For example, a millennial leap year must be divisible by 400. Which means if, like Millicent Hartranft, you were born on leap day 1896, you didn't have your first birthday until you were 8. That's a long time to wait for presents. Sutton-Smith's book also details the number of leapers in the U.S.: 187,000; and worldwide: 4 million.

Just how difficult is it to be a leaper? Wendy Mass, in her new, highly sophisticated young adult novel, Leap Day (Little, Brown, 212 pages, $16.95), presents Josie Taylor, leaper with all the usual teen-age foibles and self-consciousness, on her 16th birthday. The entire novel takes place on leap day, and Mass uses the metaphor of a day that both does and doesn't seem real to play with vantage point. Narrator Josie leaps into the thoughts of others in her life while also experiencing a series of pivotal adolescent moments, all on the same day. Mass takes the Brigadoon approach to leap year and mines it to rich effect.

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