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Yes, there are reasons for having a leap year

Another leap year has leapt upon us. As always, the occasion causes me to scratch my rapidly graying cranium in profound confusion.

I have a difficult time struggling to understand calendar stuff. Why do we need an extra day in February every few years, and why is February shorter than the other months anyway? Another complication is that people in charge of such matters decided to go with a different calendar over 400 years ago.

From 46 B.C. to 1582 the Western world used what we call now the Julian calendar. Supposedly, this is because Julius Caesar wanted a more universally accepted measurement of each year because the Roman Empire included many more cultures than that of just Rome, and the previous calendar numbered everything from what the locals thought was the founding of Rome.

A lot of the conquered people could see no sense in that. To non-Romans the old calendar seemed about as logical as counting years from the founding of San Diego — and that didn’t happen until 1769.

The Romans also wanted a calendar that accurately measured years between solstices because of planting crops at the right time. So Caesar came up with a calendar with months of alternating long and short months (longer by one day).

The Romans ended up with a year of 365.25 days, each year being 365 days with an extra day every four years. It was about 11 minutes a year off the mark.

Over a few decades this could throw the seasons off and thereby defeat its purpose. By the way, the reason February became shorter than the other months was the ego of Julius Caesar’s nephew, Augustus Caesar. He thought the month named after him (August) should be just as long as the one named after Julius Caesar (July). So Augustus took a day from February to add to August.

The Roman Empire of course adopted the new calendar (like anybody had a choice). The Catholic Church added A.D. a little over 500 years later, counting years from the assumed year of Christ’s birth.

Although not perfectly accurate, this was the standard calendar until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII decided another change was necessary.

By this time not only solstices had to be timed reasonably accurately, the timing of Easter took paramount importance. Over a long period of time, area by area, this calendar gradually became the standard.

The Gregorian calendar didn’t become adopted by England and its colonies until 1752. This didn’t happen in Russia until 1918.

During the years between establishing and adopting the new Gregorian calendar, dates were labeled O.S. or N.S. (Old Style or New Style). Old Style leap years added a day before February 25. New Style adds a day to the end of February.

As if this isn’t already confusing enough, a New Style leap year is not simply years divisible by four like Old Style. A N.S. leap year is one divisible by four but not divisible by 100, or simply a year divisible by 400. So, the year 2000 was a leap year but not 1900.

If this all seems pointlessly confusing, just do what I do. Look at a calendar and see if we have a Feb. 29.

Happy Leap Year Day.

Jim Lee is news director for KENW-FM radio. He also is an English instructor. He can be contacted at 359-2204. His e-mail:

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