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A Yankee Notebook

February 17, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I really enjoy leap year. It coincides with the quadrennial race for the Presidency; so for most of the year we’re treated to the racket of the thundering hoofbeats of the various campaigns, as they dash back and forth across the country, uttering impossible promises, vilifying opponents, and issuing apocalyptic warnings about the imminent collapse of the republic. Hardly ever a dull moment.

Another tradition of leap year, over a century old, is that American women are encouraged during the year to do the asking and chasing of the opposite sex. Irrelevant in the current confluence of gender roles, it was, during my youth, a chance for a guy to see if anybody was sweet on him. The tradition became more focused after 1937, when cartoonist Al Capp, in his popular comic strip, “Li’l Abner,” devised a way to find a husband for Sadie Hawkins, the homeliest girl in Dogpatch and the daughter of its leading citizen. Sadie’s father would fire a gun, and all the eligible bachelors would start running. At the firing of a second gun, Sadie would start running. The man she caught would be her husband. This evolved into an annual Sadie Hawkins Day in Dogpatch, a general fox-and-hounds affair: Any woman who dragged a man across a finish line before sundown could claim him as a husband. The idea caught on in popular culture, and Sadie Hawkins dances were the rage during my youth. As I recall, I never got asked – except once, by my steady girlfriend. I can’t imagine the tradition persists, or that young people even know anymore who Sadie Hawkins was.

Mother doesn’t care for leap year at all. Not only does she not care for the campaign ads that I so cherish, but she points out that it makes winter one day longer. Please don’t write to tell me how to explain to her that this isn’t necessarily so.

She has it easy with regard to leap year, compared to a 21-year-old man named Frederic in 1879. When he was only an infant, his father had instructed his nursemaid, a rugged woman named Ruth, to apprentice him to a pilot, which would assure his future. Ruth, however, is hard of hearing, and thought the father had said, “pirate.” So Frederic has spent nearly 21 years of his youth apprenticed to a band of gentlemanly cutthroats.

As his 21st birthday approaches, Frederic prepares to end his indenture, bidding a fond farewell to his piratical pals (but with a warning to them that, as soon as he joins polite society, he will be obliged to help eradicate them). Then, as they read over his contract one last time, the pirate king discovers – to his delight and Frederic’s horror – that Frederic was born on February 29. Subsequent reckoning discovers him to be only five years old. He breaks the news to his newfound love, Mabel, who promises to wait faithfully for him, even though they will be in their eighties when he is legally available. I think he reached majority and the end of his indenture the year Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated; scholars have disputed the exact date.

Pirates of Penzance, though thoroughly English, premiered on New Years Eve in 1879 in New York City. Its creators, William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, had tired of pirated productions by United States impresarios (sound like CDs and DVDs today)?), so beat the Yanks to the punch by opening it here first. Wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic, it illustrated the comic possibilities inherent in our efforts to keep the calendar from slipping out of synchronization with the rhythms of the earth and nature.

Ancient human beings had no need of a calendar; their hunting, gathering, and rudimentary agriculture were attuned to the seasons, whose occasional glitches were considered the work of mysterious gods and spirits. But their growing desire to pinpoint the solstices and the changes in the sun and moon are reflected in the erection of standing stones in Europe and the alignment of prehistoric structures in the pueblos of the American West. Like us today, they desired to know what they could be sure of.

Human society began to get organized eventually, and needed to coordinate; in short, to know when things had happened and when they were going to happen. “When” was a new concept. To nail it down, people began to give names to seasons and dates to days. The trouble was that days are a fixed length (a 24-hour rotation of the earth), and can’t be changed; and a year (a single revolution of the earth) can’t be divided evenly by a particular number of days. Imagine the fits this must have given astronomers, philosophers, and scientists who wrestled with the problem. As a result, there are quite a few different calendars. But the internationally agreed-upon one is the Gregorian, adopted in 1582 to replace the Julian Calendar, which lengthened each year by 11 minutes. Not a big deal, but over time the vernal equinox, which is determined by the position of the sun, was migrating vis-à-vis the calendar. So about the same time one pope was condemning Galileo to house arrest, another gave us our modern calendar. We use it without thinking about those 11 minutes, and the folks at the great bureau of standards in the sky automatically adjust our electronic desk clocks by satellite whenever they deem it necessary.

But where did the term “leap year” come from? As you might guess, there are lots of strongly held opinions on the subject. As you might suspect, there are several theories, none of which sound quite right. I’ll close by urging each reader to hug a “leapling,” as folks like Frederic are called. Some jurisdictions move their birthday to March 1, others to February 28. They spend their lives explaining themselves to town clerks. And it takes them forever to grow up.

Photo by Willem lange