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.

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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.

Give Me My Seventeenth Day!

Today is the sixteenth day of my children’s school year. Sixteen days of getting to know their teachers, running from the bees that invaded to school playground over the summer, re-establishing homework and study routines, and deciding that maybe summer isn’t as long and boring as they thought it was sixteen days ago.

Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy - puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)
Okay, maybe not THAT creative. photo credit: Lunchbots bento for 5th grade boy – puzzle cheese for autism via photopin (license)

I’ve been pretty busy, too. I’ve packed a variety of creative lunches (not just the slapped together peanut butter sandwiches my children can expect every day by late March), signed and returned every form that’s come home wadded up in the bottom of a backpack, and filed away roughly a billion flyers, making note of PTA fundraiser dates and soccer practice schedules.

And since I work from home, which means that when my children are home, I don’t really get to work (or at least I do a very different kind of work), I’ve had a remarkably productive sixteen days without the constant interruption of, “MOM!”

I have submitted two new short stories, added another 12,000 words to my current novel project, posted to my blog two Thursdays (and now three) in a row, attended my weekly critique group meeting three times (where I both gave and received both brilliant and terrible advice), and disappeared down several research rabbit holes. I’m even getting a start on my reading list.

You could say I’m on something of a sixteen day roll. Sixteen glorious days! That makes two entire weeks, and it would be three tomorrow.

If they had school tomorrow.

They don’t because it’s Labor Day weekend. Monday is a national holiday and all that and our school district, like many, decided to put a teacher planning and in-service training day on Friday, giving students a four day weekend. It’s probably a good idea. Families can travel or whatever. And I certainly don’t begrudge teachers their planning and in-service days. I realize those are important.

But I feel like we were just starting to hit our stride.  I want my day back!

I imagine this is kind of how the people of Great Britain felt when they woke up on the morning of September 3, 1752 and realized the day didn’t actually exist. That year, British citizens (including those in the American colonies) went to bed on September 2 and woke up on September 14, skipping over eleven days in the process.

The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The calendar change was proposed by Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield whose birthday is on September 22. Guess he got to open his presents a little bit earlier in 1752. Portrait by Allan Ramsey. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

It was probably a good idea. Great Britain had been following the Julian calendar, introduced in 46 BC. That would have been all well and good except that the calendar was based on a solar year that had been miscalculated by 11 minutes. What wasn’t such a big miscalculation in 46 BC, had after a while become a very big deal, sending the calendar completely out of sync with the seasons and wreaking havoc on the Catholic feast schedule.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decided he’d had enough and proposed the Gregorian calendar which is much more accurate as long as you add a day every few years and a second or so once in a while. While Catholic nations were quick to adopt the new system, Protestant nations were less enthusiastic.

But in 1750, Parliament decided that doing business with the rest of Europe was somewhat difficult when no one could figure out what day it was, and the plan was set in motion. Two years later September got the shaft.

Rumors have swirled across the pages of history books that the people rioted in the streets because their government had the audacity to steal 11 days of their lives. The source of that rumor, as it turns out, is probably a satirical work by William Hogarth. During the next election season in which the Tories drummed up distaste for the Whigs by publicly blaming them for cancelling the first half of September and ruining everyone’s year, Hogarth produced a painting depicting the rioting horde with placards that read: “Give us our 11 days.”

An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An Election Entertainment by William Hogarth. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And history was invented.

I may be no William Hogarth, but...nope, I got nothing. I'll just stick to writing.
I may be no William Hogarth, but…nope, I got nothing. I’ll just stick to writing.

I imagine the change did make some people grumble for a while (especially those with birthdays in early September) but others didn’t seem to mind so much. In America (where people were evidently less prone to riot for no real purpose than they are today), Benjamin Franklin wrote of the calendar change, “It is pleasant for an old man to go to bed on September 2, and not have to get up until September 14.”

So as the school district steals what should have been my seventeenth productive day, I will try to channel my inner Ben Franklin and tell myself that it is pleasant for a mom to pack creative school lunches on September 3 and not have to do it again until September 8.