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.

groundhog-4814471__340
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.

Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

Last week I got to do something fabulous. I took a quick girls’ trip to Florida with my sister, cousin, and aunt. And I did not take my kids or my husband. Not that I don’t like traveling with them. They’re really fun people. But this was a special trip to celebrate my sister’s birthday by hanging out on the beach and watching some baseball.

We went to Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Florida Marlins, but nobody cares), where we attended three games, played on the beach, explored a lighthouse with the most amusing tour guide I’ve ever encountered (but that’s another post), witnessed a rehabilitated sea turtle get released into the wild, ate a lot of cheesecake, and had, generally, a really great time.

FredbirdandSteve
Okay, so it wasn’t strictly a girls’ trip. Of course we had to take Steve the traveling sock monkey. He’s a huge fan!

And even though I didn’t take him with me, I could not have enjoyed such a trip without the efforts of my wonderful husband who rearranged his busy work schedule to hold down the fort for a few days, getting the kids to and from school, managing homework, keeping up with all the activities, and cooking dinner.

It’s this last part I may appreciate the most, because while I was gone, he cooked corned beef and cabbage. It’s a dish a lot of Americans will be preparing tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, even in spite of the fact that it falls this year on a Friday in Lent and at least the dedicated Catholics among us should probably stick to fish.

I confess that not being particularly Irish, nor even the tiniest bit Catholic, I’ve never really known a great deal about Saint Patrick. I just know that if you don’t wear something green on March 17th, someone somewhere will feel compelled to pinch you and that if you cook corned beef and cabbage in my house while I’m home (or possibly in the same state), your fate will be much worse than that.

It turns out history doesn’t yield up a whole lot of reliable information about St. Patrick, either. We know that he was born in Britain sometime in the last half of the 5th century, that he arrived in Ireland as a slave at age sixteen (possibly kidnapped by pirates), made it back home six years later, and had a vision calling him back to Ireland as a missionary, where he proceeded to do all kinds of legendary things like preaching with shamrocks and driving out snakes. That’s where his story gets a little muddy, and may (as some historians suggest) get combined with another missionary known as Palladius who was in Ireland in the early half of the 5th century.

saint patrick
Though we don’t know for sure, it seems likely enough St. Patrick may have used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity, since Ireland actually has shamrocks. Unlike snakes, which Ireland never did have. Not even green ones.[Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the lack of concrete details sure doesn’t stop us all from gettin’ our green on, even though the color more historically associated with this saint is actually blue. Historical stuff does tend to yellow with age, and Chicago goes to all that trouble to turn their river disgusting green, so I guess I’ll allow it.

The tradition that I can’t tolerate, however, is corned beef and cabbage. And frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Because Saint Patrick is as likely to have eaten corned beef as he is to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland (which, according to fossil records, never existed there in the first place). In fact, historically, Irishmen in general never ate much beef, the meaty part of their diet tending to be primarily salted pork.

If we really want to celebrate St. Patrick and all things Irish, then it’s bacon we should be eating. Now that I could get behind.

It wasn’t until the great influx of Irish immigrants into America in the 19th century that corned beef became a St. Patrick’s thing at all, and that’s only because the meaty part of the American diet tended to be more beefy. Relatively cheap beef brisket was readily available to Irish Americans who settled in large numbers alongside the kosher delis of their Jewish neighbors, and so they convinced themselves, their descendants, and green beer-guzzling Americans from all walks of life that corned beef and cabbage is a good, Irish-y idea.

But it’s not.

stpathat
I’m not a total party pooper. I will wear this ridiculous hat while not eating corned beef and cabbage.

Still, Americans will fire up their crock pots, stink up their houses, and line up in droves to eat corned beef and cabbage tomorrow. And I’m sure those lines will include a lot of Irish and/or green beer-guzzling American Catholics throughout the country where many local dioceses (though far from all) have granted dispensations to their parishioners who wish to partake.  

I can honestly say there’s not enough green beer in the world to make me want to participate in the tradition, and because I married a very smart and thoughtful man, I don’t have to. He had his corned beef last week. By the time I got back from my trip, the house had thoroughly aired out. Had it not, I’d not have hesitated to head back to the beach.