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Keeping Time: Leap Years and the Gregorian Calendar

time, calendar, dtae
Credit: Aheiev Viktor | Shutterstock

The Gregorian calendar is the calendar used by most of the world. Also called the "Christian calendar" or "Western calendar," it is internationally accepted as a civil calendar by all but a handful of countries. The Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 primarily to fix errors in the Julian calendar mostly having to do with leap years.

In the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, every fourth year had 366 days rather than 365. Roman astronomers calculated that a year — the time it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun —had a duration of 365.25 days. This method of adding a “leap day” every fourth year averaged out to this determined value.

Except, a year’s length isn’t 365.25 days; it’s actually a bit shorter. This only became noticeable as the centuries passed and the calendar drifted out of sync with the seasons. By the 16th century A.D., people noticed that the first day of spring had drifted 10 days ahead of the intended 20th of March. Basically, history had used a leap-day year 10 more times than was useful.

Etymology of leap year

The term “leap year” didn’t come about until the 14th century. The “leap” refers to the effect that leap days have on particular dates. For example, take any day, say March 9: In 2010, this was a Tuesday. In 2011, this was a Wednesday, but in 2012, this was Friday. Because 2012 had an “extra day,” it caused the example date to “leap over” Thursday. This works for any date, though dates in January and February will leap over a weekday in the year following a leap year, e.g. 2013.

A new way of determining leap years

Recognizing the 10-day error, Pope Gregory XIII had a scholar (Aloysius Liliusa) devise a new system that would keep the calendar in sync with the seasons. This new system changed which years should be considered leap years based on what numbers divide the years evenly.

Aloysius devised a system in which every fourth year was a leap year; however, century years that were divisible 400 were exempted. So, for example, the years 2000 and 1600 were leap years, but not 1900, 1800 or 1700.

While in a 2000-year period, the Julian calendar had 500 leap years; the Gregorian calendar only has 485. This change was based on a calculation that an average year length is 365.2425 days, which was pretty close: the modern measured value is 365.24219 days. This small difference, coupled with the precession of the equinoxes, amount to the Gregorian calendar shifting a day out of sync after 7,700 years. We have a while to wait until this discrepancy causes any problems …

Putting the calendar back in sync

At the time, such changes were considered controversial, but not nearly as controversial as the plan to put the calendar back into sync with the seasons. The Pope only had the authority to reform the calendar of Spain, Portugal, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and most of Italy. In those regions, Thursday, Oct. 4, 1582 (of the Julian calendar), was followed by Friday, Oct. 15, 1582 (of the Gregorian calendar). Other Catholic countries and colonies soon followed. Other nations objected to losing 10 days, but often that was due more to not wanting to indicate fellowship with the Catholic Church than being concerned with scientific accuracy. Some nations wouldn’t switch over for hundreds of years. The British Empire (including the American colonies) did not adopt the change until 1752. [Related: When Is George Washington's Real Birthday?]

Japan adopted it in 1872, Korea in 1895, and China in 1912. Many Eastern European nations chose to opt out until the early 20th century. Greece, in 1923, was the last European country to change.

Today the Gregorian calendar is accepted as an international standard, but several countries have not adopted it, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and Saudi Arabia. Many countries use the Gregorian calendar alongside other calendars, and some use a modified Gregorian calendar. Some Orthodox churches use a revised Julian calendar, which results in them celebrating Christmas (Dec. 25 in the Julian calendar) on Jan. 7 in the Gregorian calendar.

April Fools' Day origin

The Gregorian calendar is often placed at the center of a narrative regarding the origin of April Fools' Day:

Under the Julian calendar, France celebrated the New Year during the week between March 25 and April 1. When France began using the Gregorian calendar, the change shifted New Year's Day to January 1. It has been suggested that folks who didn’t hear about the change (or else refused to acknowledge its legitimacy) be mocked as “the April Fools.” They were often mocked and had jokes played on them on or around the old New Year. In France, this took the form of pranksters sticking fish on the backs of those who celebrated the old custom, earning the victims of the prank the name Poisson d'Avril, or April Fish.

This widely accepted origin tale doesn't explain other pranking traditions that preceded the Gregorian switch. For example, references to "April fools" are found in Chaucer's “The Canterbury Tales," written in the 14th century. And while it’s true that many countries of the Middle Ages celebrated the New Year on other dates — March 25 is the most relevant to this myth — most switched New Year’s back to January 1 for reasons other than the change to the Gregorian calendar. Most New-Year changes preceded the switch to the Gregorian calendar by several years.

Keeping Time: Leap Years and the Gregorian Calendar
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