Not a common greeting since the fall of the Roman Empire, but it’s appropriate today as La Plata County residents wake up ready to enjoy Feb. 29.
We can credit Julius Caesar, who introduced the Julian calendar in A.D. 45, with inserting the additional day based on astronomical observations.
“The Earth spins on its axis every 24 hours or so, and the Earth revolves around the sun about every 365 days,” said Charlie Hakes, visiting assistant professor at Fort Lewis College, director of its observatory and a Durango Herald columnist. “But they don’t evenly divide into one another. There’s some leftover time, so we have to make adjustments.”
It takes the Earth about 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds to circle the sun. If we didn’t make the adjustment every four years, we would have lost about six hours every year, which would add up to 24 days after 100 years.
That’s pretty fancy calculating for the days before telescopes and computers.
“They figured it out just by observing,” Hakes said. “If you expect the sun to come up here, and it doesn’t, it’s a puzzle, so you have to adjust your calendar.”
If your head is spinning with the math, it gets even more complicated.
Caesar’s calendar added an extra day every four years, period. But it turns out there would be too many extra days if we calculated it like that because of the 12-minute difference between the rounded six hours and the actual five hours and 48 minutes. So the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, fixes the problem.
There are some years we skip, Hakes said.
If the year can be evenly divided by 100 – the century mark, such as 1900 or 2100 – it’s not a leap year, unless it is also evenly divisible by 400, when it is a leap year. It turns out we didn’t make enough of a fuss over advancing from 1999 to 2000 during our celebrations 16 years ago. The year 2000 was the first time on the Gregorian calendar since 1600 when the divisible-by-400 marker occurred, and we’ll all need longevity pills to reach the next one in 2400.
Some of the adjustments are smaller by comparison, Hakes said.
“The earthquake at Christmas-time (in 2004) shifted the Earth slightly, so the days are getting longer,” he said. “We have a leap second once in a while. We had one last year, actually.”
The bottom line is that leap years synchronize the Gregorian calendar year with the solar calendar. If we didn’t synchronize, in future years seasons would occur later in the calendar, leading to confusion for activities dependent on the weather, ecology or hours of daylight, such as farming.
‘An exclusive club’
Being born on Feb. 29 adds a certain élan to a person’s résumé, leap-year babies say.
“We’re members of an exclusive club,” said Ryan Phelps, owner of Hood Mortuary, who is turning both 10 and 40 on Monday. “I always take note when I meet someone else because it doesn’t happen often.”
Professor Pam Smith, chairwoman of the Mathematics Department at FLC, said the calculation for what percentage of people are born on Feb. 29 is tricky because of the skips.
Also known as “leaplings,” for those born after 1900, the last skip year, the percentage would be 1 in 1461 (365 times 4 plus 1), or 0.068 percent of the population. For comparison’s sake, the rest of us share our birthdays with 0.275 percent of the people on Earth. About 220,000 people in the entire U.S. celebrate their birthday Monday.
For Tricia Bayless, who is marking her 19th and 72nd birthdays this year, it has been very rare to meet a fellow leapling.
“There was another woman I worked with for many years who got flowers on Feb. 29 one time, and when I asked her why,” Bayless said, “she said it was her birthday. She wasn’t just born on the same day, she was born in the same year.”
Leap year baby Ted Holteen, former Arts and Entertainment editor of The Durango Herald, has a complicated situation because he has two birth certificates. Two different nurses filed paperwork, one before midnight on Feb. 28 and the other after his actual birth early in the morning of Feb. 29.
“I was condemned to be strange because of my birthday,” he said “When someone asks me when my birthday is, it takes five minutes to explain. It was only recently that the date on my passport and driver’s license matched.”
The three leaplings all take a different approach toward birthdays. For Phelps, it’s a blowout celebration during leap years and something lower key with family on off years.
“I enjoy all the attention I get every four years,” Bayless said. “People come out of the woodwork to call me and email me. I taught junior high for 30 years, and the kids thought it was so cool to be older than their teacher.”
Holteen doesn’t like big parties, he said, but it’s always fun to talk about “over a couple of beers.”
Being 12 has its advantages, he said.
“Hopefully, I can still play Little League, and I know I can throw harder than those guys,” Holteen said. “It gives me an advantage in basketball and football, too.”