Pagans, festivals and leap years

Feb 28th, 2016 | By | Category: Articles

 By Nimue Brown

It’s a leap year, and tomorrow we have an extra day in February.  We owe this to the Romans, with some fine tinkering from the Gregorian reform of 1582. The solar year doesn’t quite divide neatly into days, just as the lunar month doesn’t quite fit neatly with solar years. Both solar and lunar calendars experience drift – this is why Easter moves (its timing is in relation to the lunar calendar of Judaism).

Before the Gregorian reforms, we’d been working with the Julian calendar – named after Julius Caesar, who brought it in back in 45 BCE. That in turn was a reform of a previous Roman calendar, about which I know nothing. Except, we can safely infer that at some point, September was month number 7, October 8, November 9 and December 10. I think it’s July (for Julius Caesar) and August (for Augustine) that creates that shift from ten months in the year to twelve.

It’s from the Julian calendar that we get our 12 months and the idea of the leap year. The trouble is that while the whole extra day every four years thing mostly works, it’s still not quite the solar year. There’s drift at a rate (according to Wikipedia) of one day every 128 years. Not a lot of issue in a single human lifetime, but quite a problem over a millennium. The ‘new’ Gregorian system doesn’t do leap years in years divisible by a hundred, aside from those divisible by 400, and should only creep a day every 3,226 years, so it’ll be a while before this is a problem.

One day of creep every 128 years is enough to seriously drift traditional festivals from the point in the solar year, that they were supposed to represent.

This raises some interesting questions for Pagans with regards to the wheel of the year. The great solar events of solstice and equinox are no problem – they happen when the sun is at those points in its cycle. The dates do shift slightly year on year, which is fine because it’s the solar event we want to connect with and nothing else.

What about the others? Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasadh, Samhain, what about festivals from the Norse traditions? It all depends on when you think the dates themselves were determined. How much drift has there been since these dates were set? We have these four ‘Celtic’ festivals in relation to a Roman calendar, which is interesting all by itself. And at the same time we’ve got days of the week that would seem to owe to Norse traditions, but I digress… Do the dates we have now represent the actual timings of historical festivals, or a memory of those timings that’s been altered to some degree by shifts in human calendar making?

I don’t have an answer here, but I think it’s worth wondering exactly what we’re celebrating, and why.


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