Leap Years

Written by Alejandro Neufeld

You have probably already noticed that this month’s calendar has an extra day this year. Most of us are familiar with the term leap year and have a grasp on the gist of it. To account for accurate seasonal changes, we add an extra day to February every four years and call it leap day. 

That is the short and sweet version of this phenomenon. However, the history and science behind leap years are exciting and deserve a closer look.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica (2024), the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not a whole number. We perceive it to be 365 days or one full calendar year. But one complete orbit around the Sun takes our planet 365.2422 days (Leap Year). Pssh. What difference does 0.2422 days make? Over time, it adds up. If we ignored those 0.2422 days, we could have weird weather events that would be out of season and shocking.

Indeed, climate change is already manifesting through bizarre weather events every year, highlighting the profound impact on our environment. However, the consequences of climate change could seem minor in comparison to the potential disruptions caused by eliminating leap years. Ignoring leap years would lead to a misalignment in seasonal climates, directly affecting the timing for planting and harvesting crops. This could severely impact the world’s already precarious food supply. While the initial omission of a leap year might not induce immediate dramatic changes, the cumulative effect over time would significantly compound the challenges posed by climate change. However, over 100 years, the seasons would shift so that summer would not start till mid-to-late July, a month later than it usually does on June 21st. This would be true for winter as well. Imagine winter beginning in late January and not ending till late April. Of course, the recent El Nino delayed winter in Alberta, so we didn’t even have snow on Christmas. However, that was a single isolated event, minuscule compared to the cultural changes brought on by abolishing the leap year. 

But where did the leap year come from? It is a long story, full of selfish emperors and corrupt institutions, that would best be explained by a history professor, but allow me to give you the short version. 

Leap years are nothing new. They have been around for millennia. Britannica (2024) reports that some Hebrew, Chinese, and Buddhist calendars contained entire leap months in specific years. It seems that Julius Caesar knew this, and on January 1st, 45 BCE, he initiated the Julian calendar that added an extra day to February every four years. But Caesar cannot take credit for the leap year like he took credit for overthrowing the Roman Republic. He got the idea from the Egyptians, who developed a solar calendar with an extra day every four years. Maybe he got the idea from Cleopatra during one of their late-night liaisons; it wouldn’t be the first time the Romans exploited the Egyptians. 

Nevertheless, the Julian calendar was the standard for the next few centuries. But Caesar’s math was just a tad incorrect. He calculated that a solar year was around 365.25 days long but was off by about 11 minutes. It is a tiny amount on a cosmic scale, but over time (128 years), the Julian calendar would be a whole day off. This was not good, as, by the 16th century, significant dates like Easter were off by ten days, as Easter is always on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. During much of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church, which wielded significant influence over the Western world, had issues with this situation. 

Pope Gregory XIII fixed the Julian calendar by instituting the Gregorian calendar we adhere to today. The Gregorian calendar resolved the issues of the Julian calendar by continuing to have a leap year every four years, but the significant change was not holding leap years in centurial years(this term refers to the first year of a new century like the year 2000) not divisible by 400. According to Brittanica (2024), this is why 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years. By making this change, the Gregorian calendar will only be off by a day every 3,030 years, so we still have a millennium of correct calendars ahead of us. The future generations will deal with that issue when they encounter it. 

The history of leap years is fascinating, but leap day birthdays are much more remarkable if you ask me. The math done by Desert Sun writer Ema Sasic says that the odds of being born on a leap day are 1 in 1,461(Leap Day 2024). The real question is, do leap-year babies prefer to celebrate their birthdays on February 28th or March 1st? It must be personal preference, but I imagine it is always an easy icebreaker to tell someone you are a leap-year baby or a leaper, as some call them. Some famous leapers are the NHL Hall-of-Famer Henri Richard, media personality and singer Dinah Shore, and rapper Ja Rule. 

Leap years are profound because they illustrate how precise humans have become throughout history. The Egyptians, Hebrews, Chinese, and Buddhists were all aware of the unevenness of our calendar years before we even had telescopes to view the solar system. Phenomenons like this show how clever we are and why we are at the top of the food chain. 

Works Cited

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “leap year”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Feb. 2024, https://www.britannica.com/science/leap-year-calendar

“What Are the Odds? Eisenhower Health Welcomes “Leapling” on Leap Day 2024.” The Desert Sun, www.desertsun.com/story/news/health/2024/02/29/leap-day-2024-eisenhower-welcomes-leapling-what-are-the-odds/72795854007/

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