CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)



If someone gave you an extra day in your life what would you do with it?

We’ll all get a chance to find out Thursday when everybody gets a bonus day thanks to leap year. Unfortunately, most of us will spend it just like any other day working, going to school or just sitting in a space shuttle with nothing to do because the tethered satellite experiment got away.

In a nation that takes a day off in honor of everything from dead presidents to labor, wouldn’t it be nice to get the last day of February off every four years?

Leap year is a very significant event that should be recognized nationally with celebrations, dancing in the streets, Hallmark cards, chocolate frogs and kangaroos, women throwing themselves at men and off cliffs (we’ll get back to that later) and a day off.

That’s because it’s a major astronomical event. Leap year resets the Earth’s celestial clock so we don’t wind up celebrating Christmas in July. It’s required because the Earth doesn’t orbit the sun in exactly 365 days.

What actually happens is that it takes 365.2422 days to complete one orbit around the sun and bring the seasons full cycle. That’s almost an extra quarter of a day a year. So every four years that adds up to a full day, which gets kind of hard to ignore after a while.

Ancient people who were having difficulty with the notion of fire certainly didn’t understand fractions. My college algebra teacher would testify that I am descended from those people. I never understood why you couldn’t just round numbers off, especially when it came to grades on algebra tests.

So the first calendar in ancient times, besides featuring a young Zsa Zsa Gabor in a mammoth-fur thong bikini, or perhaps because of it, was a dismal failure.

After failing to take into account the need for a leap year, the first calendar makers awoke one morning to be briefly astounded and then trampled to death when the annual migration of the wildebeest took place a day earlier than it had in years past.

Eventually, the situation got so bad Julius Caesar, in 46 B.C., added 90 days to the calendar to get it back on track. In 1572, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that 10 days in October be skipped. There was speculation it had less to do with getting the calendar back on track than it did with the middle of October just being boring and the pope wanting to get on to Halloween so he wouldn’t be the only guy running around in a funny hat.

The Gregorian Calendar, which we still use today, works very well if you don’t look too deeply into the mechanics. For instance, a day is added every four years except century years that are not divisible by 400 and leap seconds have to be added on June 30 and Dec. 31 and all bets are off if the groundhog is eclipsed by Anna Nicole Smith’s shadow.

And you thought all there was to calendars was just tearing off the quote of the day or the hunk of the month.

There are varying accounts of how leap year came to be known as such. The prevailing theory is that, in normal years, your birthday will always fall a day later in the week with each year. For instance, if your birthday was on Monday this year, it’ll be on Tuesday next year.

In leap years, however, an extra day is added so your birthday skips, or leaps, a day. If your birthday fell on a Monday last year, it’ll fall on a Wednesday this year, “leaping” over Tuesday.

Leap year is also traditionally when women can propose marriage. Leap day was the only day of the year when bachelors were immune to the proposals and could legally tell the women to “take a flying leap,” which many took literally and threw themselves off cliffs. That led to the coining of the phrase, “Leaping to conclusions.”

Marty Russell is senior reporter for the Daily Journal.

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