How Did Leap Year Begin?

Robin Kencel | February 26, 2020

Greenwich real estate’s high energy busy season is already underway, even though the beginning of March historically has been tagged as the official opening. That means that this year it will be delayed by the once-in-every-fourth-year event—the Leap Day on Saturday, Feb. 29th. Fortunately, it won’t trigger riots in the streets (as there were in 1582), nor will there need to be another “Year of Confusion” (as when Julius Caesar got involved). 

The tinkering started in ancient times. Before Julius Caesar introduced a new-and-improved 12-month calendar, the Romans had let things get out of hand. Their 355-day version was based on lunar cycles rather than the Sun’s—so to keep yearly holidays and events from wandering aimlessly through different seasons, the Emperor put his sandal-clad foot down. 

He decreed a new Sun-based calendar year. The transition required a one-time 90-day, 15-month corrective year. Those who lived through that experience called it “Annus Confusionus”—the “Year of Confusion.” We can thank our lucky stars Greenwich will never have to suffer through anything like that. Julius Caesar was so pleased with himself for successfully adding the three months that he named one of them after himself: July.

All was calm for the next 1682 years, until, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII listened to the astronomers and moved to correct an inaccuracy that had been accumulating. It turns out that a 365 ¼ day solar orbit is actually off by 11 minutes and 14 seconds every year. The Pope’s one-time correction meant skipping the ten days between Oct. 4 and Oct. 15, 1582. Riots erupted when ill-informed workers thought they’d been ripped off; they demanded their ten days’ pay!

This week, Greenwich elementary school pupils will be introduced to “leap years” and “leap days.” They’ll be told that it takes a quarter of a day longer than 365 days for the Earth to make one revolution around the Sun, so the calendar needs a little tinkering to set things right. So Saturday will be Catchup Day. ​​​​​​​

Image Credit: pinimg

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