An Extra Day and a Hot Mess

Sometime around the year 1235, Johannes de Sacrobosco, a monk and astronomer teaching at the University of Paris, published his Du Computo Ecclesiastico, an in-depth study of the hot mess that is the history of the calendar in all its various imaginings and recalculations through the years.

Though I haven’t read it, the history rumor mill suggests the book is pretty scholarly. Sacrobosco definitely had a lot of things to say about the way the passage of time should be measured, including a few suggestions for reckoning the Julian calendar to solar and lunar observations and calculations. By his day, the equinoxes and solstices had already experienced a pretty significant backwards slippage in time.

julius caesar death
Julius Caesar wishing February had been a little bit longer, because March wasn’t looking so good for him. Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

The book also includes a story about how the calendar ended up in such a terrible fix in the first place, like that time the month of February became comically short because Augustus Caesar decided to borrow a day for his own namesake month of August so that it would be every bit as long as the previous month named for his dad.

February is comically short, not only because it usually has twenty-eight days instead of the more traditional thirty or thirty-one, but because it follows January, which at least in my corner of the world is the longest darn month of the year. It’s bleak and cold and filled with the junk you put off during the holidays. Oh, and it follows the holiday season, which is as fun as January isn’t.

Any month that starts off with a groundhog is pretty okay in my book. Picture by hatlerbratton, via Pixabay

Like it has most years I can remember, February has kind of flown by comparison. This shortest month comes with a furry mascot, a celebration of love, Girl Scout cookies, the start of baseball spring training, and slightly brighter days. Mine probably went especially fast, too, because it included a book launch and the corresponding flurry of activity. My calendar has actually been kind of a hot mess.

But as “not as awful as January” as February is, it does kind of get the shaft, even in leap years like this one. Had I been in Sacrobosco’s place writing a treatise on the convoluted history and problem of calendars (which I assure you no one would call a pretty scholarly work), I also would have included that story about Augustus Caesar lopping off February’s end, because it’s a pretty great one. Of course, it wouldn’t have been true if I’d written it, either.

It turns out there’s plenty of evidence that the calendar’s multitude of problematic and somewhat sporadically assigned month lengths predated both Augustus and Julius. The latter did do his level best to fix it, consulting with the astronomer Sosigenes from Egypt to come up with a 365-day year that corrected with a leap day every fourth year.

Gregory XII
Pope Gregory XII, a man whose calendar was not a hot mess. Justus van Gent / Public domain

Not bad. But it didn’t fix the problem indefinitely and it wasn’t until three hundred fifty years after Sacrobosco’s book that Pope Gregory XII made a really good change to the plan. That’s when it was decided that the calendar everyone would use (except for those who didn’t feel like it) would include 365 days, with a leap year every fourth year, except for a century year, unless it could be evenly divided by four hundred.

Simple, no?

But it has more or less worked since then with a large chunk of the world buying in to its use, or at least more or less understanding it so that business can be conducted with relative ease all 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds of the year.

It’s still not perfect and will need more corrective action over the course of millennia. Evidently the rotation of the earth isn’t even entirely consistent, making our measurement of time a little less precise than we’d probably like to think. But there are astronomers who regularly work on that problem and keep us all on track by occasionally adding an extra one-Mississippi to the clock. I imagine most of us aren’t much bothered.

In fact, other than the approximately 4.2 million “leaplings” world wide who will be celebrating their birthday this Saturday or the hopelessly romantic ladies who will be exploiting a silly tradition and proposing to their fellas, a lot of us probably barely even notice February 29th when it rolls around.

Unless you’re like me and your calendar is a little bit of a hot mess. Personally, I plan to make good use of this February’s extra day.

It’s Only Wafer Thin

Right now in my freezer, I am proud to report, there is still one full sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mint Cookies. One afternoon right at the end of January, an adorable little neighbor girl showed up on our doorstep peddling the irresistible treats. And I wasn’t home. I say this because I don’t want to accept the blame for the ridiculous number of boxes we purchased.

You see, my husband is a sucker very generous man, one of the many reasons I love him so much. He also has a competitive streak so when that shrewd little neighbor girl told him her dad had ordered seven boxes of Thin Mints, my man ordered EIGHT BOXES. The trouble with this is that he doesn’t eat them. He doesn’t even like them; he just knows I do. He did  also order a box of his favorite Samoas, which is currently unopened in the pantry, but mainly he ordered cookies for me.

Oh, no, no. I just meant one of the little green boxes. Oh, okay, I'll just take them all. photo credit: Brother O'Mara via photopin cc
Oh, no, no. I just meant one of the little green boxes. Oh, okay, I’ll just take them all.
photo credit: Brother O’Mara via photopin cc

Sweet, right? But as any little scout savvy enough to set up a sales table outside a marijuana clinic or to pit one competitive neighbor against another can tell you, these things are addictive. It’s true that according to the FAQ page linked to the Girl Scouts of America website: “Girl Scout Cookies…are considered a snack or special treat. As with all treats, they should be enjoyed in moderation.”

Of course. That makes sense. It’s good advice. I won’t sit down and eat the entire box, then. I’ll just eat one of the two little sleeves of wafer thin cookies. For now. Then I’ll have a glass of milk. And maybe the other sleeve of cookies, since the box is already open.

And that’s why I don’t order eight boxes.

It’s also the reason that since its humble beginnings as a 1917 fundraising bake sale for the Mistletoe Scout Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the sale of Girl Scout cookies has grown to staggering annual sales of over $700 million. Ten years after Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts and just five years after that local cookie fundraiser in Oklahoma, Chicago Girl Scout leader Florence E. Neil put together an inexpensive cookie recipe for the organization’s magazine, The American Girl, encouraging local troops to sell the cookies to raise activity funds.

And even though the original 1922 Girls Scout cookie recipe wasn’t the Thin Mint, the program flourished. In 1936 Girl Scouts started working with a number of commercial bakeries across the country to supply the growing demand for their cookies, which by 1951 came in three delicious varieties: Do-Si-Dos (peanut butter sandwich cookies), Trefoils (shortbread), and at long last, Thin Mints.

There is absolutley no reason to sit down and eat a whole box of Girl Scout Cookies at once. Not when they come so nicely packages in 1/2 box serving sizes. photo credit: elaine a via photopin cc
There is absolutley no reason to sit down and eat a whole box of Girl Scout Cookies at once. Not when they come so nicely packaged in 1/2 box serving sizes. photo credit: elaine a via photopin cc

Gradually, Girl Scouts consolidated their cookie sources and today the ones you buy because cute little girls are standing in the cold right outside your favorite grocery store and you suspect they might not be allowed to go home until their cookie table is empty, come from one of two commercial bakers. Each bakery is required by the Girl Scouts to produce the three varieties standardized in 1951, but then select five more varieties to offer every year. The recipes are similar between the bakeries, but not identical, and the names may be different as well. So, if like my husband, you for some reason just love Samoas (actually the second best seller in the catalog), don’t be too upset if you find you have to settle for a box of Caramel deLites instead.

Thankfully, Thin Mints are always Thin Mints so there’s no confusion there, and I’m not the only one who likes them. As the top-selling Girl Scout Cookie, Thin Mints make up 25% of sales every year, most of them going to residents of my neighborhood. I am fortunate that even though my husband isn’t a big fan, my two sons enjoy them as much as I do, so I’ve managed to go through several packages by doling them out in lunch bags. I’ve mailed a couple more boxes in college care packages and I put the rest in the freezer.

Sadly, that last solution doesn’t work out all that well, because the only thing tastier than a Thin Mint is a frozen Thin Mint. And the only thing tastier than that is a sleeve of frozen Thin Mints. I’m not thinking the last cookies are going to make it into lunches tomorrow. I wonder how the boys would feel about getting Samoas instead.

I bet he'd rather have a Thin Mint. photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc
I bet he’d rather have a Thin Mint. photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc