DANA D. KELLEY: Horological refresher

Monday is Leap Day, and if you're a salaried worker, that means you work for free that day. If it's your birthday, you're considered a "leapling." There are only 187,000 leaplings in America, and about 4 million worldwide.

If you're scratching your head trying to remember exactly why an extra day is added to February every four years (with exceptions, see below), read on about the history, horology and modern antics surrounding the phenomenon created by "calendar drift."

You have to hand it to those ancients who first endeavored to organize periods of time into a meaningful, memorable and functional system. All they really had to go on were the astronomical cycles and the seasonal changes. The sun came up and went down, the moon slid more slowly across the sky, and the duration of night and day varied with cyclical regularity.

Early horologists--those who study time--figured out that calendar-making and uniformity were often incongruous.

Understandings of solstices and equinoxes go all the way back to celestial navigation and the zodiacal circle, as do lunar cycles measured in terms of solar days.

The hard part was dealing with discrepancies once days were timed out and ordered into months that formed a year. The problem was that the earth's revolution around the sun is not precisely 365 days.

It's sobering to think that the "modern" calendar we use now is rooted in the reign of Julius Caesar. The eponymous Julian Calendar gave us 365 days and 12 months, plus--in order to keep the calendar synchronized with nature--an extra day in February every four years, and was truly modern when introduced in 46 BC.

Essentially, Caesar's horologists fixed the year at 365.25 days. But the time it actually takes for the earth to complete one solar orbit is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds. Those few minutes don't seem like much, until you start adding them up on a millennial scale. The Julian Calendar was losing about three days every four centuries.

By the 16th century, the calendar drift had become significant--the vernal equinox, which is supposed to occur around March 21, had slipped backward by about 11 days. Because the spring equinox affects Easter, in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decided to refine the Julian Calendar ever so slightly. He removed the leap year from century years (those evenly divisible by 100)--except in those years also divisible by 400.

That's why 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was. By removing leap years three times every 400 years, the Gregorian Calendar (the eponymous trend is strong in calendars) only loses one day every 3,000 years or so.

It's a little surprising, given our propensity to merchandise and commercialize every possible calendar quirk, that Leap Day hasn't gained more traction as an exploited holiday. Leaplings do enjoy some special offers on their unique birthdays. Restaurants such as Chick-fil-A, Hard Rock Cafe and McAlister's Deli all offer discounts or promotions on Leap Day. Expedia offers special Leap Day rates for travelers at select hotels, and across the country numerous lodging properties and chains run pricing specials for rooms booked on February 29.

The Honor Society of Leap Year Babies boasts 10,000 members worldwide, including several from Arkansas. Its website also features news about Leap Day babies, and an Internet museum about "all things Leap Year" called a LeapZeum.

For example, there's a recipe for a leap-year cake from a Lancaster, Pa., cookbook; a leap-year waltz written in 1939 by famed British entertainer and composer Ivor Novello; various leap-year pins and pendants ("Speak dear, this is Leap Year" was a popular engraved phrase); and a whole host of leap-year postcards--many of which promote the tradition of gender reversal long associated with Leap Day.

The custom of allowing women to propose to men on February 29 has murky origins. An Irish legend has St. Brigid of Kildare, acting on behalf of all women who languished impatiently waiting to be asked for marriage, appealing to St. Patrick in the 5th century. Female proposals were a no-no at the time, but the patron saint decreed a quadrennial exception every February 29.

Sadie Hawkins has been associated with Leap Day, but the day honoring the Li'l Abner comic-strip character created by Al Capp is actually in November.

There's even a Leap Year Capital of the World, located in the split-state town of Anthony, Texas/N.M. Founded by a leapling member of the local chamber of commerce in 1988, the town of 5,110 convinced the governors of both states and the U.S. Congress that no other locale laid claim to the title, and to issue proclamations to that effect.

Statisticians can calculate anything, and the odds of being born on Leap Day are about one in 1,500. The odds against becoming a second-generation leapling (parent and child both born on February 29) leap to one in 2 million.

One last trivia tidbit: Not all banks include February 29 on interest payment schedules on savings. Cheers on Monday to those that do!


Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.

Editorial on 02/26/2016