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Why we have a leap year
Feb 24, 2012

 

The month of February is a little different this year because 2012  is a leap year. 
What the heck does that mean?
Well, poetically, it means:
“Thirty days hath September,
“April, June and November.
“February has twenty-eight alone,
“Excepting leap year; that’s the time
“When February days are twenty-nine!”
Leap year means an extra day of work because every four years one day is added to February. 
February 29 just looks wrong on the calendar, doesn’t it? 
But lo and behold, there it is, making a short winter month just a little harder to endure.  It seems ironic that this shortest month of the year always manages to seem so long.  Or  is it that March seems so bad?  Or, come to think of it, April can be no picnic either. I guess that’s the “cabin fever” syndrome of winter working its nasty magic.
Anyway, it doesn't seem fair to add a day to an already difficult winter month. Why not give the extra day to a summer month when we could enjoy it? Another day tagged onto February is just another burden amid the winter doldrums. But in July or August, it would be appreciated as a bonus.
And what about people born on February 29? They must be a little confused.  Being born on leap year day makes the birthday-thing somewhat awkward. In non-leap years, do they celebrate their birthday on February 28 or on March 1? Maybe they age extra slowly and only have to declare a birthday every four years.  I guess that would be nice later in life but, in the meantime, they would certainly miss out on a lot of gifts and parties.
Leap year history
To determine how all this funny calendar stuff started, we have to go back in time to the Romans. 
The favourite hobby of the Romans seemed to be “calendar tinkering.”  So, let’s explore the nuances of their calendar. 
By the way, if you get a headache trying to follow this, we have aspirin available.
The Roman calendar at one time had only 10 months, beginning in March and ending in December. Numa Pompilius (you remember Numa, a legendary king of Rome — 715-673 BC — before it became a republic?) added two months to the year — January and February. Since March was then the first month, this meant that the year now ended with February. He also changed the calendar so that January was the first month, rather than March, which became the third month on his calendar. 
So, now that we have the Roman months straight, we can move on to the burning question: Why do we have a leap year?
It might surprise you to know that February originally had 29 days, not 28. Then, during the time of Christ, along came a Roman Emperor named Augustus, who decided to remove a day from February.
He added that day to the month named after him — Augustus (August). Being vain, he wanted his month to have the same number of days as the previous month — Julius (July). Of course, it was named after the Roman dictator Julius Caesar.
Julius, by the way, great tinkerer that he was, re-arranged the calendar from the way it was when Numa Pompilius fiddled with it earlier. 
Calendar make-overs was an ego-thing for Roman leaders. These guys needed some other hobby!
On January 1, 45 BC, Julius set the solar year at 365 “and a quarter” days. The explanation for why he did this would give you an even worse headache.  
He compensated for this adjustment by giving February 29 days every four years. 
So that’s the saga of a leap year and why every four years we endure an extra day in this much-maligned month of February. The only consolation is that we’re gradually moving ever closer to spring with each passing day.