Lecture 8


February, 2024

Number 8                                                                                                                                            February 2024

On January 1 I performed the annual ritual of removing all our 2023 calendars and replacing them with 2024 calendars.   Each page has a scene on the back of the previous page with the days of the month on the page below.  Looking past January, I noticed that this year February has an extra day.  A “leap day”.

The date, February 29th, brings up some memories from my distant past.  I have always been inquisitive, and I recalled that I had wondered why February, the second month of the year, was the month that was shorter than the other eleven.  I am positive that when I first questioned the reasons for February’s being shorter than the rest, time and resources prevented any investigation.  There are limits to what a six- or seven-year-old can do.   Google and Wikipedia did not exist at that time.  In fact, the PC and even the Internet did not exist.   Now that I am retired and supposedly have “oodles of free time on my hands” “with nothing to do”, at least that is what I have been told, I decided to find out why. 

February 29th occurs once every four years, mostly.  There are some exceptions to this rule, but they occur rarely and most likely not in our lifetime.  The general rule for adding a “leap day” is the year must be evenly divided by four. The years 1800 and 1900, although evenly divided by four, both fall under the exception rules and did not have a February 29th, the year 2000 did but 2100 will not. 

The 29th of February is added to correct the fact that our year is approximately 365.25 days long.  That is very close to just how long it takes the earth to complete one orbit around our sun.  The extra day in February is to keep our seasons in sequence with the summer and winter solstices and the spring and fall equinoxes.

We use the Gregorian Calendar which is a modification of the much older Julian (Roman) Calendar which is a modification of a much older calendar used by the Roman Kingdom and Republic.   The Roman calendar consisted of twelve months with from 28 to 31 days each.  The twelve months were based on the lunar cycles.   To compensate for the extra quarter day the ruling power, first the king, then the Senate and finally the emperor, would add an additional day or days to bring the seasons back into alignment.   The Roman year started on March 1st.  I had wondered why September, October, November and December, our 9th through 12th months were named based on the Romen numbers seven through ten.  Starting the year with March made sense of the numbering and naming.   The other eight months were named for various Roman gods, March for Mars, April for Aphrodite, and June for Juno.  The emperor Augustus renamed two of the months to honor himself and his predecessor, Julius Ceasar.   Since the year isn’t exactly 365 days the ruling power would add additional days now and then to bring the calendar into alignment with the solar cycle. 

 The calendar used by the Roman Kingdom and the Republic had only ten months, four months of 31 days and six of 30 days.  That totaled 304 days with the remaining 60 plus days unassigned.   To resolve the problem of 60 or more unassigned days each year the ruling power would scatter any unassigned days throughout the year.  Under Roman law no business could be conducted during an “unassigned” day.  These extra days were usually given over to various holiday celebrations.  To some extent we continue these customs over our holidays when the government and financial institutions shut down.  Possibly under the Republic, various reforms added two additional months, January with 31 days and February with whatever days were left.  One major Roman holiday was Saturnalia, the days between the winter solstice and January 1st.   Most Roman holidays were set aside to celebrate pagan gods and the church was able to remove them from our calendar.  This winter holiday period was so ingrained into society that the church adopted it to celebrate the birth of Christ.  The Roman god, Saturn, was the supreme god of the Roman pantheon.  Christ, the one true God, easily took the place of Saturn and so we celebrate Christmas and the Christmas season which lasts until January 6th.

In about the fourth century the Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western empires.   Christianity had been made the official religion of the empire.  With the political split the church also split.  The western empire adopted the Bishop of Rome as the head of the church.  The church in the eastern empire split into several local authorities.

 The western Roman Empire ceased to exist in the seventh century and for the next eight centuries no one exercised the power to make any necessary adjustments.  Pope Gregory XIII issued a decree in 1582 which brought the civil calendar back into alignment with the solar calendar.  The church adopted Pope Gregory’s calendar in October 1582.  The changes affected the calculations used to determine which years were to be Leap years.  Additionally, ten days were eliminated, Thursday October 4, 1582, was followed by Friday, October 15, 1582.  The civil world was a bit slower to adopt the new calendar.  Catholic countries adopted it quickly while Protestant countries were slower.  Greece was the last European country to adopt our Gregorian calendar in 1927.   The Orthodox churches remain on the Julian calendar. 

Life was much simpler for our distant ancestors.  The sun rose in the morning bringing life giving energy to the earth and set in the evening, bringing a period of darkness and danger.  After thousands of years mankind determined that four days were special.  There is evidence throughout Europe and North America that our ancestors erected some means of identifying these special days.  The best known is Stonehenge in England.  Every civilization developed some means of keeping track of the passage of the year.  Scientists tell us that the most accurate ancient calendar was developed by the Mayan civilization in southern Mexico and Central America. 

Today we use atomic clocks to keep us at the correct time down to the exact nanosecond.  Our lives are governed by clocks.  We have clocks that wake us in the morning.  Many of us have a specific time when we retire for the night. 

And you know – the sun still comes up each morning and still sets in the evening,