The Leap Year Conundrum


While Leap Year is a fun rom-com (which I recommend for anyone who’s a fan of rom-coms, Ireland, or Matthew Goode) and a great way to wrap up February-the-month-of-love…this post is only tangentially about it. In my last post, I talked a bit about the Lunar New Year, and it would be remiss of me if I didn’t also talk about our solar calendar and it’s fun quirk: the leap year.

What is a leap year, why is a leap year, and what does it do besides give February an extra day? Well, I did some digging and it turns out the leap year exists partly because of the sun, partly because of Julius Caesar, and partly because of a Pope.

In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar decided to reform the Roman Calendar, because their year was about 10 days shorter than ours. In order to keep the seasons happening at a regular time, they would simply add a new month to the year whenever it was needed. Inspired by the Egyptians’ more regular solar calendar, Caesar decided to make the year 365 days long instead, to match the time it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. The new Julian calendar sounded like a simple fix, but implementing it took a bit of finagling. To make the transition from the old Roman calendar to the new one flow well, Caesar made that first new year 445 days long and then adjusted the next to our familiar 365 days.

This worked for a while…except it actually takes the Earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 56 seconds to make its rounds. That extra time needs to be accounted for, just to keep our seasons happening in the usual times. For example, over about 700 years, summer would have moved from June to December! Thus, the ‘leap year’ was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. He decided that every four years would be a leap year, unless it was the beginning of a new century—except for every 400 years, when we would keep that extra day.

This was also implemented delightfully weirdly. To realign the calendar which was, as mentioned, now ten days off, October 4th, 1582 was declared the last day of the Julian calendar. October 15th would be the debut of the Gregorian calendar. Imagine waking up and the government has declared you’ve time travelled ten entire days!

Interested in learning more about our sun, time, holidays, and calendars? Then check out the recs below!

The Sun’s Heartbeat by Bob Berman

The beating heart of the sun is the very pulse of life on earth. And from the ancients who plotted its path at Stonehenge to the modern scientists who unraveled the nuclear fusion reaction that turns mass into energy, humankind has sought to solve its mysteries.

In this lively biography of the sun, Bob Berman ranges from its stellar birth to its spectacular future death with a focus on the wondrous and enthralling, and on the heartbreaking sacrifice, laughable errors, egotistical battles, and brilliant inspirations of the people who have tried to understand its power.

Chasing the Sun by Richard Cohen

The Sun is present everywhere—in mythology, language, religion, sciences, art, literature, and medicine; in the ocean depths; even atop the Statue of Liberty. Packed with interesting figures (the Sun is responsible for 44 percent of the world’s tidal energy, and when aligned with the Moon, as at high tide, makes us all minutely taller); extraordinary myths (in India, just a few years ago, pregnant women were still being kept indoors during an eclipse, for fear their babies would be born blind or with cleft palates); and surprising anecdotes (during the Vietnam War, a large number of mines dropped into Haiphong harbor blew up simultaneously in response to a large solar flare), this splendidly illustrated volume is erudite, informative, and supremely entertaining. It not only explains the star that so inspires us, but shows how complex our relations with it have been—and continue to be.


Holiday Symbols and Customs edited by Helen Henderson

With a extravagantly long subtitle, this book describes the origins of more than 300 holidays observed in the United States and around the world. It explains where, when, and how each event is celebrated, provides detailed information on the symbols and customs associated with the holidays, and includes contact information and web sites for related organizations.


The Time Book: a Brief History From Lunar Calendars to Atomic Clocks by Martin Jenkins

What is time? Why does it fly when we’re having fun? When did we start keeping track of it — and why do we measure it in such bizarre ways? Explore these and many other timely questions, such as how the first calendars and clocks were invented, why February is such an odd month, and what strange and wonderful things Einstein discovered about the nature of time itself. Martin Jenkins’s clear, conversational narrative on the history of timekeeping combines with Richard Holland’s quirky mixed-media collages for a compelling look at that mysterious thing we call time.


A Brief History of Time Keeping by Chad Orzel

Sharp and engaging, A Brief History of Timekeeping is a story not just about the science of sundials, sandglasses, and mechanical clocks, but also the politics of calendars and time zones, the philosophy of measurement, and the nature of space and time itself.


Rhythms of Life by Russel G. Foster

Why can’t teenagers get out of bed in the morning? How do bees tell the time? Why do some plants open and close their flowers at the same time each day? Why do so many people suffer the misery of jet lag? In this fascinating book, Russell Foster and Leon Kreitzman explain the significance of the biological clock, showing how it has played an essential role in evolution and why it continues to play a vitally important role in all living organisms.


And finally, just for fun, here’s a great edition of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare to check out! It has an original introduction, incisive scene-by-scene synopsis and analysis with vital facts about the work, commentary on past and current productions based on interviews with leading directors, actors, and designer, photographs of key RSC productions, and an overview of Shakespeare’s theatrical career and chronology of his plays. Overall, its an incredible resource for students, Julius Caesar stans, and lovers of the famous Bard!

Until next time, happy leap year everyone!

About Sumayyah

Sumayyah is an Information Assistant at the Vaughan Public Libraries. She's also a bookworm and author, constantly dreaming up a multitude of different stories and wrestling with finishing them.  |  Meet the team

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