By: John Wang (Grade 12)
A brief history and amusing stories of the leap year phenomenon
A long time ago in the Roman empire, precisely two thousand and sixty-six years ago, Julius Caesar was fervently working to solve an issue of the utmost importance. You see, the Roman calendar back then wasn’t the most intuitive; in fact, it was in complete disarray. It was based on the cycles of the moon’s orbit around Earth and consisted of only 10 months, until Ianuarius and Februarius (which sounds like new zodiac signs) were added later.
Every now and then, extra days, weeks, or months were added to align the calendar with the seasons. If that doesn’t already cause total discombobulation, whenever an extra month is needed to accommodate the winter, February gets shortened to only 23 days.
Julius Caesar was never a fan of this confusing system. After becoming the Pontifex Maximus (head priest) of the Roman Republic, he gathered a group of scholars to introduce a series of reforms to the Roman Calendar. He decided to scrap the entire lunar system and create a calendar based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun instead. He added intercalary months to better line up the months with the seasons and adjusted the number of days in each month. Eventually, it became the Julian Calendar, which contains 365.25 days split into 7-day weeks and 12 months. To adjust for the extra quarter of a day, February was elongated by an extra day every four years, thus creating the leap year. The Romans senators were so pleased with this calendar and Caesar’s other achievements that they decided to rename the 7th month in honour of him after he got brutally stabbed to death by…well, the same Roman senators.
As you may know, the calendar we follow today is the Gregorian Calendar, not the Julian. What is the difference between them, you may ask? Well, instead of a year consisting of 365.25 days, a Gregorian year is more accurate and has 365.2425 days, making it around 11 minutes shorter. This difference sounds pretty insignificant; however, as years go by, these small 11 minutes start to add up. Through the 1500-1700s, after Pope Gregory XIII introduced reforms to the old calendar, European countries started to adopt the Gregorian Calendar. While transitioning, to make up for the extra days gained by the Julian Calendar, most countries decided to simply chop off 10 days. However, there was one exception.
Legend of February 30th
Sweden, the peculiar place it is, decided to take its own approach. It decided to ignore the leap years from 1700-1740. Therefore, when it reaches March 1st, 1740, its calendar will align with those of other European nations. It sounded fool-proof, but the Swedes were a little careless and screwed it up. Due to probably poor memory, they forgot to skip the leap days in 1704 and 1708. This created total chaos and pandemonium when 1740 rolled around. Well, not really, because when the king found out about the problem in 1712, he quickly solved it. However, that man’s idea of “solving it” was questionable. Instead of taking away two days to continue Sweden’s plan, the king decided to add two days to revert to the old Julian Calendar, thus creating Feb.29th and Feb.30th. The whole skipping leap years plan was scrapped and Sweden continued to use the old calendar until 1753 when they finally started using the Gregorian, this time by chopping off 11 days like every other country.
Born on a leap day
Do you know what people born on a leap day are called? Well, neither do they. Some refer to themselves as a “leapling,” others say “leaper” or simply “leap year babies.” I personally think “leaper” sounds the coolest, so for this article, I’m going to refer to them as such.
Leapers are pretty rare. According to government censuses, there is a 1 in 1461 chance of being born on a leap year. Which makes sense because there’s a leap day every four years and 365 days in a year. 1/(365.24*4) = 1461
Being a leaper sounds pretty cool, but they have to deal with scenarios us less cool people don’t have to deal with. For instance, if you are a leaper and decide to celebrate your birthdays on Feb. 28th on non-leap years, you might not be able to get a drink at the bar for your 19th birthday because you’re technically not 19 yet. However, if you go at exactly midnight between the 28th and the 1st, you might just be able to (if you chug your drink).
Photo credit: google images
Did you know that 1900 wasn’t a leap year?
Most people know that to calculate which years are leap years, they simply have to check if the year is divisible by 4. For example, this year, 2020, is a leap year because 2020 is divisible by 4. Most of the time, this rule stands true. However, a little known fact is that if the year is divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400, it is not a leap year. For instance, the years 1800 and 1900 were not leap years but 2000 was.
Remember when I mentioned that the Gregorian year is 365.2425 days as opposed to the old calendar of 365.25? This new number is closer to the actual number of days per orbit around the sun of Earth–365.242199. To create this more accurate number, Pope Gregory XIII and his council decided that there should be 97 leap years per 400 years to get closer to the actual number of days in a year. (For those of you math geeks, real year: (365.2422-365)*4 = 0.9688 which is pretty close to 97 [leap years]. This small difference is then solved by seconds correction known as the Leap Second)
Hopefully, you’ve learned a thing or two about leap years. Don’t forget to drop your knowledge bomb on your friends in the future. Happy Leap Year!