Monday, February 29, 2016

Annus Bisextilis

Of all the curious causes I could have embraced in my youth, perhaps the most curious one which I did (sort of) embrace was advocating for the adoption of the so-called "World Calendar." I guess that was what came from reading too much as a kid! While I can't recall the exact date, I can definitely recall picking up the book in the local public library that first turned me on to the idea of a "World Calendar." (That would have been sometime in the early 1960s). 

Anyway, what the "World Calendar" purported to be about was creating a constant, unchanging, predictable calendar, on which the same date would fall on the same day of the week each year. The thing that presently prevents this - the problem with the present Gregorian calendar, if you will - is the 365th day, which usually occurs on the same day of the week as January 1 did. So every year, the same dates occur one day later in the week from the year before. Factor in Leap Year (technically called an "intercalary year" or a "bissextile year") every four years, moreover, and it all gets even more varied and complicated!

What the "World Calendar" proposed was to begin each new year uniformly on Sunday, January 1. In fact each three-month quarter (thus April 1, July 1, and October 1) would begin uniformly on a Sunday. The first month of each quarter would have 31 days, the other months 30. So each quarter would end on a Saturday. What then of the final 365h day? The solution was a "World Holiday," which would fall between Saturday, December 30, and Sunday, January 1, but would not be any day of any week. Every fourth year, moreover, there would be an additional "Leap Year World Holiday," falling similarly somewhere between Saturday, June 30, and Sunday, July 1. It was precisely the sort of abstract, ahistorical, and culturally insensitive rationality that the French Revolution (which did briefly invent its own crazy calendar) would have appreciated!

My advocacy for this scheme was non-obsessive and reasonably low-key, though I did encourage my family and friends to take it seriously. I finally came to my senses, however, late in 1963. On December 4 of that year, the Second Vatican Council adopted its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Conciiium). Studying it (as we were required to do in high school religion class that week), I read its concluding Declaration "On Revision of the Calendar," which stated that the Council "does not oppose efforts designed to introduce a perpetual calendar into civil society" but "only in the case of those systems which retain and safeguard a seven-day week with Sunday, without the introduction of any days outside the week, so that the succession of weeks may be left intact." That was when I realized that - like the French Revolutionary calendar, which had the abolition of the biblically based 7-day week as one of its goals - the "World Calendar" would be hugely problematic religiously - and not just for us Catholics, but for all Christians, Jews, and Muslims!

So, so much for the "World Calendar," but I still like the idea of a "World Holiday." Specifically, I think today, February 29 - this extra day we have every fourth year - should always be a holiday!

"Leap year," as everyone knows, was first introduced into the Roman calendar by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. Caesar intended it to occur every fourth year. The Gregorian Calendar we now use corrected Caesar's calculations by omitting 3 leap years every 400 years - e.g., not adding the extra day in 1700, 1800, and 1900., but doing so in 2000 (That is why the Julian and Gregorian calendars are now a full 13 days out of sync.) For reasons that made more sense to an ancient Roman than to us, Caesar inserted the extra leap year day in late February - duplicating the sixth day before the Kalends of March, which in the Roman way of computing dates was February 24. Hence the Latin term for leap year is annus bisextilis, i.e., a year in which the sixth day before the Kalends of March occurs twice. (February 23, the seventh day before the Kalends of March, was the Roman feast of Terminalia, devoted to Terminus, the god of boundaries, temporal as well as geographical, which likely explains Caesar's choice of the following day.) 

So, for example, in the old liturgical calendar, the sixth day before the Kalends of March, February 24, was the feast of Saint Matthias. But in leap years, when there were two sixth days before the Kalends of March, Saint Matthias was celebrated on the second of them, February 25 (see photo). Sadly, to no noticeable advantage to anyone, the present, post-conciliar calendar reassigned Saint Matthias to May 14. So another quaint survival from liturgical antiquity was gratuitously abandoned.

Be all that as it may, we still have this oddity of leap year, which gives us a February of 29 instead of 28 days and means for the next 12 months that every date will fall two days of the week later instead of the usual one. (Hence the term "leap year.") Having recovered from the rationalist folly underlying the "World Calendar," I can now better appreciate the charm of having such variety in our calendar. 

Not surprisingly, all sorts of popular folkloric customs have developed over the centuries in regard to leap year. There is, for example, the British-Irish tradition (dubiously associated with Saint Brigid of Kildare) that a woman may take the initiative and propose marriage to a man in Leap Year. 

I don't know what to make of that in today's very changed society. But I still think the extra day should be a holiday!

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