Little Bits of History

Leap Day

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 28, 2013
Leap Day

Leap Day

February 29, 1584: Due to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in many parts of Europe, the first Leap Day occurs. Calendars are used to order time for social, religious, or commercial purposes. Time units for calendars are divided into years, months, and days. Cultural groups needed to know when to plan for a viable harvest and that often included a need to know when to placate which gods in order to assure for a successful growing season.

Many different calendars have been created and many still exist today. Some religions maintain their own calendars while there are some held as sacrosanct by certain countries. Today, the world runs on the Gregorian calendar with many of these secondary means of tracking time, as well. Much of Europe adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582-83 but many non-Catholic regions would not be persuaded by the Pope’s science. Turkey succumbed in 1926 and China completed the conversion in 1929.

While humans prefer things tidy and easily categorized, the fact remains that the Earth does not orbit the sun in an even number of days. Therefore, certain years are given an extra day, called “leap day” in order to realign the calendars with the Earth’s solar orbital position. The formula for the calendar is 365 + 1/4 – 1/100 +1/400 = 365.2425 days. The true length of the year is 365.242374 days and so after 8,000 years the calendar will be about one day behind.

The Gregorian calendar is simply a correction of the Julian calendar that was in effect from 45 BC. In ancient Rome, winter time was so useless that January and February weren’t even named until around 700 BC. February is named for the Latin term for purification, februum. It is also the only month that defies universal pronunciation, a fact Walter Cronkite playfully noted on a yearly basis. People born on February 29 are called leaplings and can celebrate their birthday on either February 28 or March 1 during non-leap years. There are some countries that have gone to the trouble to legislate which day is the official “birthday” date for non-leap years, but it is usually left to the celebrant to decide.

“Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.” – Jane Austin

“There are years when nothing happens and years in which centuries happen.” – Carlos Fuentes

“Some days are for living. Others are for getting through.” – Malcolm S. Forbes

“Each day is a little life; every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: We don’t just keep track of the passage of time by calendars, we separate the past from the future by the moment called the present. This passage is a dimension we call time. It has been the subject of religion, philosophy, and eventually science but there is difficulty in defining the term without using the term in the definition. Measuring the passage of time can be done with clocks. These are the one of the oldest human inventions and allowed for the measurement of smaller increments of time. Sundials and candle clocks were the first means of measuring time. Today, with ever smaller increments of time measured, we have atomic clocks tracking us. 

Also on this day: Hammerin’ Hank – In 1972, Hank Aaron signed with the Atlanta Braves for a record salary.
Child Labor Law – In 1916, a new minimum age for workers was passed in South Carolina.
Run For Office – In 1932, Bill Murray was on the cover of TIME magazine.