Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

Why is today, 29th February, Leap Day?

For the first time in God knows how long, today proved unsuccessful in venturing into the hills. So, I am resorted to share one from the archives. On the last Leap Day, the 29th of February, 2020, the skies painted a blue canvas above Roseberry. Oh, those naïve days, as Covid was on the verge of integrating into our lexicon.

Why do we find ourselves entangled in this enigma of Leap Day? One might question the rationale behind its placement in the calendar. Why not, in all simplicity, append this additional day to the concluding moments of the year, christening it on 32nd December? It’s a conundrum with two plausible explanations: one simple, the other more intricate.

The simple explanation lies in the beliefs of ancient cultures, such as the early Christian communities, who regarded spring as the beginning of the year, thereby designating March as the first month. Consequently, when the Romans appended an additional day to February, they were essentially extending the year’s end (pertaining to their March). What did the Romans ever do for us?

However, those Romans didn’t just add an extra day to the end of February; instead, they actually inserted it the middle, to the 24th. It’s all because they were playing a numbers game, counting backward from specific dates in March: the 1st (Kalends), 7th (Nones), and 15th (Ides).

So, in your standard non-leap years, the days shuffled along like this: 1st March (Kalends), 28th February (2nd Kalends), and so on, until hitting 24th February, the ‘6th Kalends of March.’ Now, when the leap year rolled around, they slipped in an additional ‘6th Kalends,’ christened the ‘bissextile day,’ and in ancient texts, one can still encounter references to the additional day, now February 29, as the bissextile day.

The tradition continued on during the Middle Ages, particularly in religious houses, where precise date reckoning was paramount for keeping tabs on feasts such as Easter. The surplus day in February guaranteed that the Spring Equinox and Easter revelries stayed in sync.

For medieval scholars such as Byrhtferth, the correct calculation of dates was not merely a matter of practicality, but also a symbolic gesture to pay homage to God’s integral role in the creation of the universe. Byrhtferth underscores the interconnections among earthly elements, seasons, and even Christ, all bound together by the omnipotent force of time, which is divinely governed.

While the straightforward response could be ‘because the Romans did it,’ the underlying rationale is rooted in historical context and the imperative to uphold consistency with religious observances. Thus, even in the wake of the Roman Empire by centuries, this extra day persists firmly nestled within February.

I think! E.& O.E.


Stephenson, Rebecca. 2024. ‘The Leap Year Is February 29, Not December 32 due to a Roman Calendar Quirk – and Fastidious Medieval Monks’, The Conversation <https://theconversation.com/the-leap-year-is-february-29-not-december-32-due-to-a-roman-calendar-quirk-and-fastidious-medieval-monks-224433> [accessed 29 February 2024]







Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *