What’s all this fuss about Leap Year Day?

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Commentary by Joshua Fitzgerald
Times-News correspondent

   Though many people never consider its importance, February 29 is essential to keeping our calendar synchronized with the seasons and holidays. The evolution of the day is a story of both human foresight and human stupidity.
The leap day that became February 29 was first devised during the Julian reform of the Roman calendar. The pre-Imperial Roman calendar did use a system to compensate for the extra 0.24 days in a year (because Earth actually takes about 365.24 days to revolve around the sun), but it was not consistent. It was applied by the high priest of the Roman religion by inserting a “leap month” between February and March.
    However, because the high priest was not restrained by tradition when inserting the new month, and because the Roman high priest was often politically biased, the high priest sometimes used his ability to manipulate the length of the year to keep his friends in office. The calendar didn’t even have 365 days — it had 355 days — which added to the confusion. These factors, unsurprisingly, caused problems, so when Julius Caesar became ruler of Rome he set out to fix these issues.
First, Julius Caesar, after receiving advice from mathematicians, added 10 days to the year. Then, he created a system in which an extra day was inserted somewhere in February or March. This calendar system, called the Julian calendar, became the standard for about 1600 years.
By then, people realized that the calendar was once again becoming out-of-sync; the holiday of Easter slowly began to drift forward in its position in the year. Thus, the Pope Gregory XIII declared in 1582 that an exception and an exception to an exception would be added to the “leap day every four years” rule. The exception to the “every four years” rule was that a leap day would not to be added if the year was divisible by one hundred — like 1700. The exception to the exception (the exception to the “divisible by 100″ rule) was that a leap day would be added if the year was divisible by 400 — like 2000, according to Wikipedia.
This “Gregorian” calendar, a convoluted patchwork of exceptions and exceptions to exceptions is nevertheless the calendar we use today. Various efforts to reform the calendar have been made, but nevertheless it is still widely accepted around the world. Even though the leap year system is awkward, it is indisputable that the stability of the entire calendar hinges upon it.

 Joshua Fitzgerald is a freshman at Greensboro College and a Teens & Twenties writer.


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