Every fourth year we get an extra day for free on February 29th. And 2016 is one of those years. Which got me thinking. Why do we have leap years and who came up with the idea? Was it just a bit of fun that got out of hand or is there a proper reason for it? I kind of gave the game away a little in the title but to find out what’s really going on, we need to delve a bit deeper into Italian history. Oh, and here’s another clue – you’ll need your toga and sandals for this bit!
Why do we need an extra day every four years anyway?
Here comes the science.
We all rely on a solar calendar, using the sun’s position to mark out seasons and calculate how long a year should be.
A year is generally measured as the time between the beginning of the start of spring and the next time that spring starts. Which is 365 days. And a bit. Five hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds of a bit, to be exact.
Which means that over the course of several years the seasons and a standard 365-day calendar would slip out of synchronization causing a great deal of confusion, especially for agricultural societies. Who wants winter in July or Spring in October eh?
So who invented the leap year?
For the answer we need to go back to the days of the ancient Romans – hence the need for those togas and sandals. Nice knees by the way!!
It turns out that those ancient Romans were quite a clever bunch. Not only did they conquer large swathes of Europe and invent concrete, amongst other things, but they also knew quite a bit about calendars and the extra bit on the end of each year.
So when Julius Caesar came to power in 46 BC he decided to resolve the problem, asking his astronomer Sosigenes to add an extra leap day every 4 years to the new Julian calendar. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why February was chosen, but Caesar’s decision still forms the basis for our calendars today. Clever old Caesar, eh?
And another Italian, Pope Gregory XIII further refined Caesar’s work in 1582 when he introduced a new rule to skip leap years every 400 years. The fix was needed as it turned out that an extra day every four years was too much of a correction – technically Caesar only needed to add 97% of a day but we’ll let him off! And today the Gregorian calendar, based on the Julian calendar, is the most common system in the world.
Italians and leap year today
Some cultures see a leap year as a bit of fun or a temporary break from the norm. In countries such as Britain there is an entertaining tradition that women can propose to their partners only on February 29th. America has a similar tradition with Sadie Hawkins Day, from the old hillbilly comic strip Li’l Abner.
But for others, including Italy and Greece, however, a leap year or anno bisestile is a harbinger of bad luck, particularly in connection with farming, fertility and family. Argh!
One Italian proverb sums up Italian thinking very succinctly – Anno bisesto, anno funesto literally meaning leap year, doom year. It doesn’t sound good, does it?!
Another one goes further proclaiming Anno bisesto tutte le donne senza sesto or in other words expect your women to be erratic in a leap year! And a third is even more specific declaring Anno che bisesta non si sposa e non s’innesta meaning in a leap year you don’t get married and you don’t graft.
The general message, if you’re Italian, is not to plan any important life events like engagement or marriage in a leap year or face the doom-laden consequences! Strangely, though, any coins minted in a leap year are considered to be lucky charms. There’s just no explaining some superstitions is there?!
Will you be leaping for joy?
So what does a leap year mean to you? Will you be down on one knee proposing or clutching your lucky charms waiting for it to pass? Leave me a comment to tell me your leap year traditions. Come on, hop to it!!! And in the meantime, spare a thought for the leaplings like Italian composer Gioachino Rossini born in 1792 and Pope Paul III born in 1468 who only got a proper birthday once every 4 years! Buon compleanno tutti, happy birthday everyone!
The post 29th February – Italians invented the leap year, who knew? first appeared on DreamDiscoverItalia.