Next Saturday is a significant day on the calendar. It happens only once every four years. It’s Leap Day. What’s that all about? By the time Julius Caesar enjoyed his famed affair with Cleopatra, Rome’s lunar calendar had diverged from the seasons by some three months—despite efforts to tweak it by irregularly adding days or months to the year.
To restore order, Caesar looked to Egypt’s 365-day year, which as early as the third-century B.C. had established the useful addition of a leap-year system to correct the calendar every four years.
Caesar adopted that system by decreeing a single, 445-day-long Year of Confusion (46 B.C.) to correct the long years of drift in one fell swoop. He then mandated a 365.25 day year that simply added a leap day every fourth year.
Without Leap Year, the seasons would slowly shift and eventually Christmas would slide right into summer. Of course, Christmas was certainly not the issue in 46 B.C. But keeping the calendar and general seasons in alignment was important.
But even this system was flawed, because the quarter of a day that leap year adds annually is a bit longer than the solar year’s leftover 0.242 day. That makes the calendar year some 11 minutes shorter than its solar counterpart, so the two diverged by an entire day every 128 years.
“As it turns out, if you stick in one every four years, that’s a few too many,” says James Evans, a physicist at the University of Puget Sound. Between the time Caesar introduced the system and the 16th century, this small discrepancy had caused important dates, including the Christian holidays, to drift by some 10 days. Pope Gregory XIII found the situation unacceptable, so his Gregorian calendar was unveiled in 1582—after another drastic adoption of time-warp tactics. Gregory reformed the calendar and they dropped ten days from the month of October that year and the rules for leap year were modified to correct the problem.
Now leap years divisible by 100, like the year 1900, are skipped unless they’re also divisible by 400, like the year 2000, in which case they’re observed. Nobody alive remembers the last lost leap day but dropping those three leap days every 400 years keeps the calendar on time. Well, until the atomic clock. But that’s another layer to this story.
Humanity has struggled trying to make nature’s schedule fit our own. And that is always our goal. Control. We want to be masters of our own world, but we can’t even count the days correctly. Of course, we can’t conclude that there is a God who rules over all. Instead, it’s just a quirk of nature, which we ought to control. But can’t. So this week, don’t forget there are 29 days in February. Use the day to humble yourself before our Creator and marvel at His creation.
Contrary to what the world says, there is nothing magical or mystical about the day. Beware of the mumbo jumbo out there. Stick to revealed truth in the Scriptures. And be thankful that we figured out how to keep summer in August. There is a designer out there before Whom we bow and adjust our lives and our calendars and our watches. Most won’t make that the take-away. But I will.