In praise of Leap Day

I’m a big fan of Stuart McLean’s show ‘The Vinyl Cafe’ on CBC radio, but that doesn’t mean that I agree with all of his opinions or writings. Last weekend he did a big spiel about disliking February that I have to take issue with for a few reasons. First, but not most importantly, he used a conceit that I really think should be done away with - that of pretending that the months of the year have weather patterns and spirits of themselves, divorced the periods of time that we as people have arranged them into and the cultural attitudes that we imbue them with. ‘I know that February is the shortest month of the year, but if we could shorten it even further and add the extra days to June, we could get weeks more fine June weather.’ Lately I’m not such a big fan of the June weather, but it obviously can’t work like that anyway just by rearranging the months, it’s not cute anymore, and everybody, especially Stuart, should just drop it.

The bigger point that I want to take issue with, though, is Leap Years and Leap Days, and today, Leap day of 2008, seems like a good time to get this off my chest. First, I’m going to include a bit of the McLean ramble to which I am rebutting, with all of the usual disclaimers, this is his writing, not mine, and I include it here under fair use as explanation:

“…this notion that a month can accordion in and out every four years, and I don’t know how they got THAT past the Board of Regents. You’re commissioned to codify the year, to design a system that makes the year solid and reliable, and you do that, eleven out of twelve months… And you leave February to some maniac from the basement, who has radical theories about child-rearing and what you should eat for breakfast, and has just been WAITING for a chance like this! …This is what we’re left with, a month that can’t keep track of itself, a month that loses days willy-nilly… like those school notices your kids never bring home.”

There’s a lot to nitpick in that passage, (WHAT board of regents, and who commissioned them?) but to me what sticks out is that the charge that Leap Day is somehow flighty, unreliable, or crazy just because it isn’t part of every year like the others. Odd notion it might be, but something like leap day is the best way I’ve heard of to make a workable calendar on planet Earth, and I have nothing but respect for the people who came up with the idea and crunched the numbers for it.

Let’s start with the basics - the point of our calendar is to organize the solar days within the seasonal year - the number of times the sun rises and sets between winter and winter, to put it fairly simply. These periods of time are based on how fast the earth is spinning on its axis and orbiting the sun, and naturally, they don’t match nicely with one being an exact multiple of the other. The seasonal year, (from one winter solstice to the next, say,) is close to 365.2425 solar days long. If you want every year to have exactly the same number of days, then you’d make a calendar that’s just 365 days long, and not worry about the extra quarter-day every year. However, at that rate, if you started with winter in December, it would only take around 900 years to get to winter in summer. That’s not much good.

Around the time of Julius Caesar, I think, was when the notion of an extra day first got some momentum. Jules recognized a good idea when he heard it, supported the idea, and therefore that first system is known as the Julian calendar. (Calendars never get named after the people who come up with the ideas and do the math, they’re named after important leaders who manage to get everybody to listen up.) This leap day system was pretty simple, one leap day every four years no ifs ands or buts, and it was LOTS better than what came before, but still not really close enough. A few hundred years ago, what with telescopes and abacuses and slide rules, someone was able to work out that we were gaining by around 3 days every four hundred years on the seasonal year using the Julian calendar, and that something should be done about it. Eventually they worked out where to take out three leap years every four centuries, and that gives the calendar that we’re using now.

So - I know I’ve rambled on a lot about the history and the math, but this is where I get to my point. February isn’t a screwup because of leap day - it’s taking the hit and keeping track of something very tricky so that the rest of the year can just keep taking care of business as usual. February, in its own way, is an IT nerd in the best sense of the term. :slight_smile:

And I have to say, I’m reminded of something that Douglas Adams once said about a particular joke from a stand-up routine. “There was no way the joke worked that didn’t depend on the jokester and the audience conspiring together to jeer at somebody who knew more than they did.” I guess that in this case, that casts me as the maniac from the basement with radical theories. (Certainly I sympathize with him.) Guess what, Stuart. Sometimes the maniac’s theories really do work out for the best. I guess you might not mind that much to be shovelling the snow from your walk, (and losing keys,) in June and enjoying the sunshine in February if you were used to it from when you grew up, but as for me, I feel better knowing that summer and winter are more or less where the ancient Romans left them.