Today, Popular Science reported that a duo of researchers at Johns Hopkins University created a new calendar in which dates fall on the same day of the week every year. To do this, they dropped February’s leap day, replacing it with a whole leap week at the end of December every 5-6 years. While a two-week office vacation between Christmas and New Year’s Day would be fantastic, it sounds like some people would be stuck with a permanent case of the Mondays.
This made me curious about how our current calendar came to be, so I visited The Source Of Alleged Truth (aka Wikipedia). I learned that messing with the calendar is a time-honored tradition with numerous prominent historical figures mucking things up.
Rumor has it Romulus established the first Roman calendar in 753 BC with 10 months of 304 days (March-Dec.). Being averse to the cold, since he wore a toga all year, Rommy decided to leave winter off the schedule. The peasants knew this was ridiculous, but kept their opinions to themselves, lest they be persecuted.
Fifty years later, Rome’s King Numa (Rome had kings?) decided to let winter-born people celebrate birthdays, so he tossed January and February into the calendar, with New Year’s Day on March 15 (later moved to Jan. 1). Numa used 354 days, but since Romans considered odd numbers lucky, he upped it to 355, just for kicks. Things still weren’t working, so he used two Wikipedia-paragraphs worth of calculations and a whole extra “leap month” during the occasional year to balance it out. Peasants reacted with the obligatory cheer, lest they be persecuted, and went on ignoring the calendar, farming in sync with the seasons.
Julius Caesar, feeling pretty smart after inventing the caesar salad, thought the Roman calendar wasn’t quite right — probably uneasy about a calendar that celebrated the ides of March. So, in 45 BC, he created a calendar with 12 months of 365 days and a leap day every fourth February. Jules was basing his calendar on a solar year, which meant it aligned with the seasons, so peasants gave it a resounding, “It’s about time, you idiots” (only in their heads, of course, lest they be persecuted).
Everyone lived happily by their Julian calendars for centuries, then scholars discovered a solar year is actually about 11 minutes shorter than the 365.25 days of the Julian calendar, causing it to gain three days every four centuries. The Vatican, knowing they’d be around for a while, figured they should probably fix things, or a future Pope would be celebrating his June birthday as snow fell. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal bull announcing his Gregorian calendar, which excluded years divisible by 100 from being leap years, unless the year was divisible by 400. The peasants, sick of the endless math, thought, “This is bull. Literally. A papal bull. We have to order new calendars. I want ‘Gruel of the Month’ this time.”
Countries were slow to adopt the Gregorian calendar, allegedly because they weren’t Catholic, but most likely because people were upset about their birthdays. In 1582, when Spain, Portugal and Italy implemented the new calendar, the peasants went to sleep on Oct. 15 and awoke back in time on Oct 4. This thrilled the peasant children who got two birthday parties that week, but angered peasant woman who gained two years (“I’d never guess you were 23. It seems like you just turned 22!”).
Sweden decided to take decades to convert by excluding leap days over 11 successive leap years, until they caught up. After a few years, King Charles XII realized his Official Calendar Guys forgot to exclude leap days in 1704 and 1708, so in a fit of rage, he switched Sweden back to the Julian calendar. Swedish peasants thought, “You have GOT to be kidding me,” but didn’t bother to protest since they’d been using black market Gregorian calendars for years.
Britain and the British Empire (including what is now the eastern U.S.) adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. This allegedly caused some riots related to taxes, but since I’m an American working for a British firm, let’s just say, “everything went smoothly, and peasants throughout the British Empire were joyful.”
The last interesting conversion to note happened when people in Alaska went to bed as Russian citizens on Friday, Oct. 6, 1867, and awoke on Friday, Oct. 18, as American citizens. They got two consecutive Fridays because the International Date Line was shifted from Alaska’s eastern to western boundary in sync with the change to the Gregorian calendar, when the U.S. purchase of Alaska took effect. “You couldn’t make it two Saturdays?” Alaskans asked. “I have to work on Fridays!” This was the origin of the phrase, “Alaska is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”
All of this leads me to think that maybe Feb. 29 should be a legal holiday. After all, nobody (even Johns Hopkins researchers) would want to eliminate a free day off from work.