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Leap Year Lesson: What Is a Year, Anyway?

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The year 2012 is a leap year. The year in four during which there is an extra day. An extra day! What an odd concept. How in the world could there be an extra day? Extra comes from the Latin word for "outside of" or "beyond." According to Webster, it means "additional to" or "over and above the normal." How could a day that exists and is counted be considered extra? What is normal? A year is a year is a year, isn't it?

Well, that depends. The word year means "period" or "season" from the Greek, hora. A year is simply a segment of cyclical time. Its exact dimensions, divisions, and duration can be measured and described in any number of ways: its turning, tabulated with reference to the sun, the moon, the stars, as well as civil and societal convention. Our current culture recognizes and maintains several kinds of years simultaneously. There is the fiscal year, the tax year, the school year, the seasonal year, and the religious year of repeated ritual.

Creating an accurate and practical calendar is an astonishingly complicated challenge, which has plagued our calendrical tendencies since people first attempted to create some logical and consistent order for themselves from a universe that can be so chaotic and confusing in its complexity. The difficulty is due to the impossibility of reconciling in simple, whole, round numbers the intersecting cycles of the sun, the moon, and the earth, which, taken together, determine the cycles of time.

As the world turns, spins on its axis, it twirls ever toward and then away from the sun, always coming full circle on itself. This perpetual pirouette produces alternating periods of darkness and light. One complete rotation of Earth is accomplished in 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. A day.

The moon circles Earth, spinning as it goes. The sun is reflected off of its satellite face, mirroring the brilliant magma. We can easily perceive this cycle as we watch the slenderest of silver crescents emerging from the dark sky, growing by degrees in girth to become a shining full light disk, then in reverse, phasing back again into the black. A complete moon cycle takes 29 days 12 hours 44 minutes and 28 seconds. A month.

Earth, itself a satellite, orbits around the sun. Coming closer, retreating, tilting first one pole, then the other toward the energetic heat at the center of our universe. This revolution around the mother star results in the seasons. One orbit takes 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes and 46 seconds. A year.

The solar year, which we also call the tropical, natural, astronomical, and equinoctial year, is the length of time that it takes Earth to complete one revolution around the sun, or 365.2422 days. The astral or sidereal year is the time the sun takes to return to an apparent position in relation to the fixed stars, or 365.2564 days. The lunar year is 12 moon cycles counted from one new moon to the next, or 354.3672 days. Our calendar year, which is divided into 12 months of 52 weeks, is the period of time calculated from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. The common year is counted as 365 days, while there are 366 days in a leap or bissextile year.


Of course other cultures have developed different descriptions of the year. Some, like the Eastern Orthodox and the Parsi, also contain 365 days, though they are not numbered in the same way. The Buddhist calendar counts 12 lunar months of 360 days, while the Baha'i year has 19 months of 19 days each, totaling 361 days. The Jewish, Islamic, Chinese, and Hindu calendars are all comprised of 12 lunar months equaling 354 days. Although in each case the months are of different lengths, the years numbered from divergent starting points, and leap time/extra time dealt with in quite distinct and clever ways.

Today, the Gregorian calendar is the officially accepted organization of annual time for civil use in every nation in the world. However, most cultures celebrate their religious and ritual year according to their original lunar and lunisolar calendars. The Orthodox Julian calendar, the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist, Parsi, Baha'I, and countless tribal calendars are all still in active use. And many countries publish calendars that feature parallel versions of the year.

While this panoply of early style calendars is kept current and unchanged, the Gregorian calendar is constantly being corrected, adjusted, refined. There has been international agreement that the years 4,000, 8,000 and 12,000 be converted from leap to common years. This has resulted in lessening the difference between the calendar and solar years from one day in about 3,300 years to one in 20,000. And by limiting future century leap years to those divisible by 900 and which have a remainder of 200 or 600, we have become correct to one day in 44,000 years! Nothing like thinking ahead.

It's ironic, isn't it? The more organized and rationalized and exact the calendar becomes, the more workable and practical and accessible we make it, the further we remove ourselves from the original goal of our task. We have taught ourselves how to tabulate time in order to be able to tell the future and interpret the past. To place ourselves in the scheme of all things. To put our lives into the perspective of its passing.

Humankind has always kept track of time. And that is exactly what we have lost. The further we perfect the artificial framework we have constructed for the counting of time, the more we lose our visceral, physical, emotional, sensual, and spiritual understanding of it. And along with it, our primal, personal participation in its process.

Just how long is a day anyway? How long is a night when it never gets dark anymore? How long is a month that affects us as it affects the tides? Who even notices the moon, except, of course, when someone is walking on it? And the seasons? How can anyone even tell with all the heat-saturated concrete, air conditioning, and climate change? Let alone a year. How the hell are supposed to know? Do any of us remember?

It's quite a task these days to stay in tune with real time when we have become so estranged from Nature and Her cycles. Perhaps we might use this leap year as a sort of reality check. Use this extra day to check out this amazing universe we live in. To contemplate and celebrate the workings of our world, which, despite our constant bisection, dissection, and abstraction, remains magnificently mysterious. Let us take this time out of time to live in the present moment.

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