Sunday, April 14, 2024

PHALON’S FILES: Take a Flying Leap

In addition to a creamy, tangy salad dressing, did you know Julius Caesar gave us leap year?

The Romans, for several centuries, observed a lunisolar calendar. The Moon circled the Earth every 28 days, and 12 of those rotations made up one year. But 12 times 28 equals 336, so Black Friday shopping crept earlier and earlier into the fall and summer. Suddenly Dies Laboris was turning up a couple days after Quarto Nonas Iulii.

This wasn’t a big deal for the Romans but had this continued, Humana Americus wouldn’t be too happy centuries later if Labor Day followed the Fourth of July by a week.

So, the early Romans, who were now running late, decided to add an intercalary month every couple of years to make up for those lost 29 days. But that was cumbersome, and the establishment of these years wasn’t consistent and often led to political mischief. Voters would arrive at the polls and find out the election was a week ago next Tuesday.

Along came Julius Caesar who said “Non fraudis electionem!”

The Roman senators donned their togas and set out to adopt the Julien calendar. Now, I don’t know if Julius Caesar himself calculated the calendar that bears his name or just took the credit, but extending February bought him a little time before those Ides in March.

History misattributes all the time. In fact, since writing the first sentence of this column, I’ve learned that the Caesar salad was actually invented by Caesar Cardini, owner of a pizza joint in San Diego. 

Regardless, getting everybody on the same page was easy. Getting them all there on the same day was a little more difficult since they all still used old mismatched calendars.

There would still be 12 months, but they would no longer be aligned with the Moon. The months would vary in number of days, so that they added up to 365. But since the Earth takes 365 and about six hours to orbit the Sun, those extra hours added up to a full day every four years.

The Roman timekeepers began adding that extra day to the calendar every four years. That year would be called a bissextile year, and the day the bissextile day. (Which is why leap year has been banned in Florida. To make up the extra day, Floridians celebrate Anita Bryant’s birthday twice every four years.)

There were a few false starts at the beginning. For a while the extra day was added to February 24, making the date 48 hours every four years. If your rental chariot was due back on the 24th, you had an extra 24 hours.

Later the Julien calendar was revised, and was then overtaken by the Gregorian calendar, which firmly established leap year and leap day.

And to further confuse things, the Gregorian calendar, which is the one on your smart phone, took a couple centuries to be fully adopted, and by the time it was it was discovered, Caesar’s calendar had fallen behind by 11 days.

So, Fun Fact: We celebrated George Washington’s birthday on February 19 this year as a Monday holiday. His traditional birthday is February 22. But in fact, George Washington was born on February 11, according to the Julien calendar, which was being used at the time.

When Julius’ calendar was chucked around 1750 and Greg’s was adopted, turns out George was born 11 days later than he thought.

At least he wasn’t born on leap day. And surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of well-known people born on that day, either. I thought Laurence Fishburne, but it was actually his son, Langston.

The Sun and the Moon will be having a good time with us in the next few weeks. Ten days after leap day comes the beginning of daylight saving time then the total solar eclipse on April 8.

More on that later.

Joe Phalon
Joe Phalon, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Joe was lured out of retirement by the opportunity to be a part of the Ridge View Echo. During a decades-long career in publishing and journalism, he has covered government on many levels from local school boards to the United States Supreme Court.

Along the way, Joe has worked at American Lawyer Magazine, The National Law Journal and The Record among other publications, and as the Press Officer of Columbia Law School. His work has been recognized with several first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the New Jersey Press Association.

Being part of the Ridge View Echo brings Joe back to his roots and the kind of news coverage he loves: Telling the stories of people and local communities as well as keeping an eye on how their money is spent by their government officials.

Joe lives in Blairstown with his wife Rose, the founder of Quilting for a Cause, and their two wiener dogs. He is an artist in his spare time.