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Riots, Beatles songs thrive on Leap Day

It's a simple problem of arithmetic - 365 days just does not equal the length of a solar year. To be exact, it's off by five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds.

In everyday life, this means that every four years, approximately one day goes uncounted. This discrepancy is corrected by leap year - a day with a whole lot of history.

While people today have gotten used to the idea of adding an extra day to February every four years, this was not always the case.

When Julius Caesar instituted his Julian calendar, switching the Roman time-keeping system from a lunar to a solar year, he had to add several months to the year to make the calendar date match the solar date. The year 45 BC ended up with 445 days because of this change. It is no wonder people called it the "year of confusion."

"Things had just gotten out of control. The dates on the calendar did not match up with the plowing season or the war season," said Classics Department Chairman John Miller.

Caesar realigned the calendar, adding an extra day every four years. Unlike today's addition of the extra day Feb. 29, the extra day on the Roman calendar was entered between Feb. 23 and 24.

The new and improved calendar kept the western world on track until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII realized that the calendar was once again inaccurate.

Since the length of a solar year is not exactly 365.25 days, Caesar's calendar had slowly become more inaccurate as time passed. By Pope Gregory's time, the calendar was off by about 10 days.

"Pope Gregory was concerned because they had to fix the dates for Easter," said Astronomy Prof. Charles Tolbert.

Gregory XIII's calendar reforms were enacted Oct. 4, 1582. As a result, the next day was Oct. 15, 1582. He kept the leap year but changed the qualifications for it.

Then a leap year was recorded every fourth year, except for century years not divisible by four. For example, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were all regular years, but 1600 was and 2000 is a leap year.

As if that's not confusing enough, not every European country adopted the pope's calendar reform immediately. England waited until 1752 to institute the new Gregorian calendar.

"It wasn't until an act of Parliament that the Julian calendar was basically thrown away and the Gregorian calendar brought in," said Environmental Sciences Prof. Steven Macko.

By the time England decided to correct their calendar, the discrepancy in time was 11 days. September 2, 1752 was followed by Sept. 14, 1752.

"That's when all the riots happened," Macko said.

Rent bills still were charged for the 11 days that had not occurred, but workers only earned salaries for the days they actually had worked.

England's Parliament also moved New Year's Day from March 25 to Jan. 1 with the same act. One can see how arbitrary this past year's New Year's celebrations really were.

The calendar reform stuck, and leap year and Feb. 29 as we now know them were born.

Not all of the world has been so obsessed as the West with keeping the calendar accurate.

The Mayans, for example, had a different philosophy on calendar making.

Their calendar was not based on the Earth's position around the sun. Rather, their year was exactly 365 days, regardless of accuracy.

To make up for this accuracy discrepancy, the Mayans had two other calendar systems on which to rely.

The Mayans believed that time was cyclical. The current cycle began in 3114 BC.

"When you covered a certain amount of time - around 5000 years - the cycle would start over again," Astronomy Prof. Roger Chevalier said.

According to Mayan calculations, the current time cycle will end in 2012.

"We try to adjust the calendar each time," Chevalier said, "They made no such attempt."

One of the most unusual sets of circumstances associated with Leap Day took place in Scotland. In 1288, Leap Day was named as the only day a woman legally could propose to a man.

Her chances of being accepted must have been pretty high, since any man who refused a Leap Day marriage proposal had to pay a fine.

In 1504, Columbus used the prediction of a lunar eclipse on Leap Day to scare hostile native Jamaicans.

Jumping forward several hundred years, on Feb. 29, 1940, "Gone With the Wind" won 8 Oscars, including one presented to Hattie McDaniels, the first black performer to be honored.

On Leap Day 1952, New York City erected pedestrian "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signs at the intersection of 44th and Broadway.

Feb. 29 also has been lucky for the Beatles. Number 1 hits and awards seemed to latch on to them on that odd extra day of the year.

In 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the number one hit song on Leap Day and on Leap Day 1968 "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" won a Grammy.

So the next time one of those 366 day years rolls around, just thank your lucky stars that at least this year isn't a 445-day-long year of confusion.