Saturday, February 29, 2020

But Leap Year Coming One in Four

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Of all the days of the year, surely February 29th must be the most mysterious. A vanishing day, appearing once every four years, subject of myths and whimsy and odd traditions.

Leap Year as we know it was introduced in the Gregorian calendar, which replaced the old Julian calender in the 16th century (leading to many headaches for historians dealing in that period, who constantly have to cite dates in two ways.) The ancients knew a complete revolution around the sun takes slightly more that 365 days, and the early Greeks actually had a more accurate calendar than the one that replaced it, dictated by none other than Julius Caesar. That calendar added on a leap year every four years, which, over the centuries, caused the month and date to drift further and further from the ordinal equinoxes and solstices. 

The Gregorian calendar was named after Pope Gregory XIII, who, if it hadn't been for his astronomical foresight, would be about as well-known as Popes John V, John VI and John VII. Gregory's mathematicians came up with a "not every four years" refinement; years divisible by 100 - but not 400 - contain a leap year. So, for instance, 1900 had no leap day, and neither will 2100. Slightly more complicated than the rhyme we all learn about "February has twenty-eight, but leap year coming one in four."

(When the French had their 1st revolution and reformed their calendar by making it twelve months of exactly thirty days - with spiffy new names that owed nothing to Roman gods - they solved the leap year problem by adding on les jours complémentaires, a five or six day holiday. This seems extremely on point for a country that gave us both the metric system and naughty underwear.)

The most famous leap day custom is, of course, that of giving women the go-ahead to ask men for their hand in marriage. Known as Bachelor's Day in the UK and evidently spread haphazardly across Europe, it's gotten a bit confused in the US with Sadie Hawkins Day. Sadly, the transgressive thrill of dolls popping the question to guys has faded quite a bit in these modern times. Perhaps in the future, we can replace it with "Swipe Right Day," where everyone using dating apps has to okay whoever shows up in their timeline.

In a less secular vein, February 29 is also the feast day of St. Oswald of Worcester, a very nice early English bishop who keeled over on Leap Day 992, while washing the feet of the poor. For some reason, foot-washing hasn't caught on as an amusing leap year habit.





Of course, the best thing about February 29th is its use as a plot point. There are a bunch of romances - usually historicals - featuring Bachelor's Day, and several YA novels about young people with once-every-four-years birthdays.  And, my favorite, the idea that a leap year baby's chronological age doesn't line up with his birthdate is one of the key elements of the wonderful Pirates of Penzance. So let's go out to Rex Smith, Kevin Kline, and Angela Lansbury singing about a most amusing paradox... while rejoicing that this year gives us all one extra day for reading!


58 comments:

  1. Thanks for that perfect Leap Day video . . . .

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  2. I must confess I've never seen Pirates of Penzance. Thank you for that, for the history - and for that view of Jessica Fletcher!

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    1. Edith, the entire non-subtitled movie of the stage show is online at YouTube. It's well worth the watching time, especially since we have an extra day in which to do it!

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  3. Kevin Kline and Angela Lansbury in The Pirates of Penzance--love it!! Thanks, Julia!

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  4. I don't remember this scene. Thanks for the video - I love Angela Lansbury in all things.

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    1. Liz, the whole play is online at YouTube - Lansbury's performance is delightful.

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  5. That was such a fun stage production that they made the movie. Isn't Linda Ronstadt in it, too? Anyway, thanks for the video, and the reminder about leap years in general. They carry so much more historical weight than simply being the years in which we are particularly infested with politicians. Does anyone have plans for a particular Leap Day celebration? Or is it just one more opportunity to write?

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    1. One more day to revise! I thought I was done with this book and decided idly to search for "was." OMG - I'm making the language much richer and alive, but it's a slow slog. Happy to have the extra time.

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    2. Gigi, yes, Ronstadt played the part of Mabel, and her voice is exquisite.

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    3. Glad to know my memory hasn't totally failed, Julia. And good for you, Edith! Put this day to good use!

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  6. Dan Rather said yesterday that so far 2020 hadn't shown him much, certainly not enough to rate an extra day.

    When I was growing up and Al Capp was still alive, February 29 was Sadie Hawkins Day. There were Sadie Hawkins dances, and girls were expected to do the inviting. But that was long ago and far away.







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    1. Remember the Lil Abner comics? Sadie Hawkins Day featured prominently!

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    2. Ann and Karen, it was invented by Al Capp for the comics! The theory is he was inspired by the tradition of Bachelor's Day.

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    3. Loved Lil Abner and his enormous cast of characters Al Capp was brilliant

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  7. My birthday is February 28th. (yesterday) hard to believe I am 74. I have gone through my life explaining, no I was not born on Leap Year. thanks for the engaging essay Julia, always something splendid on JRWs.

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    1. Happy Birthday, Coralee! If you HAD been born on the 29th, you still wouldn't be old enough to drink legally yet!

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  8. Oh Julia, once again your video has brightened my day!

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  9. perfect Leap Day video! I love Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, but haven't seen one performed in years.

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    1. Margaret, there are several online at YouTube free for the watching - some are college productions, but you can find professional versions of the big three and of Trial By Jury.

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  10. Thank you for the info about calendar years and leap years; I didn't know any of that. Here's hoping this extra day gets us one day closer to wisdom and peace...

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  11. I love your idea, Julia! I an all about an extra day for reading. đź“– ❤️

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    1. Imagine, Cathy, if we all pledged February 29 as Read a Book Day, at the end of our lives, we will have gotten an extra 18 - 22 books in!

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  12. Any day is perfect for Gilbert and Sullivan! This is great… And I love leap day, kind of a gift from the universe. and proof that nothing is really anything, right? We just call it that…
    Happy birthday Coralee!

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    1. So true, Hank - as the French Republican experiment shows.

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  13. Thanks for the video, Julia. Angela Lansbury knew how to chew up scenery, didn't she? Oddly enough, just yesterday I mentioned to my husband that I've never seen any Gilbert & Sullivan, including P of P.

    The Google Doodle today is fun.

    We are squeezing in too many social activities today. Never thought of it as an extra day, but it really is!

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    1. The whole movie is available for free on YouTube, Karen!

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  14. Plans for tonight: curling up with the movie on video.

    And I just can't get "A Paradox" out of my head.

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    1. Excellent plan, Susan. Today would be Frederic's 39th birthday!

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  15. Shalom Reds and fans. Last year, in the late Spring, my roommate and I, went to a local production of the Pirates of Penzance. We sat right up, in front, next to the pit. I had never attended, as an adult, a production of any Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. We enjoyed immensely. I think, when I was a kid, there were one or two classmates who had birthdays on the 29 th of February.

    When I was younger, there was a book that I owned, about the history of knowledge, whose first chapter was all about the calendar. I had in my head that the author was Vartan Gregorian but I find nothing in his Wikipedia page. I was looking for it to explain to a friend how the dates of Passover and Easter are determined by their respective calendars.

    The end of February is special for me, because I consider it the end of Winter. I know. I am rushing it a bit. However, if the crocuses are up, I usually can tolerate March and look with great anticipation for April. Spring training exhibition games of Major League Baseball began this past week.

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    1. David, you might be thinking of The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. The first part is all about time and how it's measured: calendars, clocks, etc.

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    2. David, my late husband used just that same clock to determine the change of seasons: winter was over the day Spring Training began in Florida.

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    3. Yes. That's who it was. I got the wrong library. It was the Library of Congress and not the New York Public Library.

      I always love listening to baseball games on the radio. (They stream them now.)

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  16. Now I feel like we should be singing “One More Day” from Les. Miz!

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  17. Such a fabulous blog post! JULIA you always shine even when you’re under the weather! Off to build a catio for the escape artist and then I’ll read - thanks for that!

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  18. Thanks for the information about Leap Year. I’m grateful to have an extra day for reading, and today is also the first day of our spring break, so I’m quite happy!

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    1. Nice, Cindy! Ours doesn't come until March 9th, and boy, am I looking forward to it!

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  19. Isn't it nice that the extra day falls on a Saturday? A perfect time to curl up with a good book and ignore the cold and snow outside. Although now I want to see if I can stream The Pirates of Penzance. I wonder if it's on Netflix. Thanks for the taste of it, Julia!

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    1. Chris, it's available for free on YouTube!

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  20. Kevin Kline, Rex Smith, Linda Ronstadt, Angela Lansbury, everyone so young! I loved that film and now need to see it again. There is a local production of P of P in the town next to mine in March. I must buy tickets!!
    Happy Leap Day everyone.

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    1. Happy Leap Day, Judy! And yes, the chance to see G&S live should never be passed up.

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    2. Or, to mis-quote The Mikado, it never should be missed. No, it never should be missed.

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  21. I think one of my rotating college roommate's brother was a Feb 29 kid.

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    1. I wonder how "old" he would be now, Deana?

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  22. Julia, thanks for the video! I loved that. I was reminded of two things whenever I see "Leap Year". People who were born on the 29th of February have birthdays once every four years, right? There was a joke about someone saying it is my 16th birthday and it was obvious that person was not 16. why? that person was born on the 29th. LOL. And I remembered the movie Leap Year about an American travelling in Ireland and gets lost?

    Diana

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    1. Yes, Diana, with Amy Adams, who is in Ireland to take advantage of the tradition that the woman can ask the man for marriage on Leap Day.

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    2. Yes, Julia, and I think the man was the same actor on the new Hawaii 5-0 series?

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  23. "This seems extremely on point for a country that gave us both the metric system and naughty underwear."
    That is brilliant!

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