The actual length of a solar year is 365.24219 days, Chester said. At first, this difference seems trivial. But using 365.25 days (the 0.25 represents a leap day divided by four years) causes a solar year to be about 11 minutes too long, thus robbing time from the next calendar year. After 128 years, those 11-minute increments add up to one whole day.
By the late 1500s the Julian calendar year was about ten days off from the solar year. As a result, the calendar showed the spring equinox falling on its traditional date of March 21, but the actual astronomical event had occurred weeks earlier.
For the Christian church, this disconnect spelled disaster: The formula for determining Easter Sunday was based on the date of the spring equinox. Pope Gregory the 13th had to issue a papal edict in 1582 correcting the leap year calculation rule: A leap year occurs every four years except in years that end in "00," unless that year is evenly divisible by 400. His alterations gave the world the Gregorian calendar, used in the Western world today.
Time Again for Reform?
East Carolina University philosophy professor Rick McCarty became interested in calendars as a teaching tool. In doing research into the history of calendars, McCarty discovered many past and some present movements to reform the Gregorian calendar system.
Two of the more common proposals are the World Calendar, brought before the United Nations for consideration, and the International Fixed Calendar. Both can be reused each year by relying on the insertion of so-called blank days. These days would be akin to "24-hour waiting periods before we start [the] calendar again," McCarty explained.
McCarty's personal favorite time-keeping method is a week-numbering system established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Already popular in Europe and within certain business, computer, and manufacturing circles, the ISO system numbers weeks consecutively. "You could understand your birthday or your anniversary [as] week 26, day 3 and you'd never need to worry about what month it was," McCarty said.
Rather than doing away with Leap Day, however, people like Mary Ann Brown have turned February 29 into a public celebration unlike any other.
Consider the border town of Anthony, Texas/New Mexico, population 10,000. Anthony is home of the World Wide Leap Year Festival and Birthday Club and designated Leap Year Capital of the World.
Brown, an Anthony resident since 1951, and friend Birdie Louis first proposed the idea in 1988 to the town's chamber of commerce. The town had been struggling to find a way to promote its farming community. With cotton, green chilies, and pecans already "claimed" by surrounding towns, the chamber was stumped. One farmer finally exclaimed in frustration, "Anthony is not the capital of anything," Brown recalled.
Reminded of the media coverage she received as a child for having a leap day birthday, Brown and fellow leaper Louis made a strong case for a leap year festival. According to Brown, the chamber thought it was "crazy" but voted for it nonetheless.
After the first party in 1988, Brown's sister, Patsy Duncan, spearheaded the movement to have Anthony named Leap Year Capital of the World. The title was entered as an official request into the record of the 100th U.S. Congress by New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and has been claimed proudly by Anthony ever since.
Brown, whose five children all will be in attendance for her 18th leap day birthday, is looking forward to a strong turnout this year. The festival is the only public celebration of its kind, Brown said, and attracts attendees from all over the world, as well as attention to this perhaps overlooked date.
"Everybody in the world has that extra day, not just the people born on that day," Brown pointed out. She herself has a special fondness for having a leap day birthday: "I call it the fountain of youth."
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