When we here at Olivia Waite hear that Leap Day is coming up, surely we're not alone in thinking, "Frederic finally gets a birthday!" Because if anything is always culturally relevant, it's the nonstop patter-filled story of an uptight young British man finding true love after being mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in his youth. Poor Frederic won't be free of the indenture until he turns 21—since he was born on February 29, it will take him about six decades. Pity the poor soul with a Leap Day Birthday!
A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) titled "Jerry's Sweet Sixteen" was based on the same premise: perennial joke-butt Jerry Gurgitch was born on February 29, so from a very technical standpoint he's only had sixteen birthdays.
Of course, the Leap Day Birthday does not mean Jerry has not spent sixty-four years on this planet as it revolves around the sun. The Leap Day Birthday is an aberration that reveals the way we culturally build the idea birthdays: you can live however long you want, but the anniversary of the date you were born is the important day, and if that day comes around only once in four years then those years somehow don't count toward your total age. Like dog years, but in reverse and for people.
Annual birthdays of course were invented by the ancient Romans. This is quite true: according to Denis Feeney's wonderful and mind-bending Caesar's Calendar, the fact that Ovid shares a birthday (and a calendar day) with his brother is the first documented instance of the same date occurring with precisely 365 days between. This was made possible by the recent invention of the Julian calendar (which included leap days, and eventually fell to the Gregorian calendar). Before then, the ancient Greeks would celebrate the date of their birth every month, which sounds like a pretty transparent justification to have symposia all the time with your friends. Hey, οινοχορος! Βring me more birthday wine! It's the 15th again!
Before the Romans began to standardize the calendar, each nation, region, or city-state kept its own history on its own time, with its own reckoning. This sounds terrifyingly chaotic—but it bears pointing out that after the Gregorian calendar was contrived in the 16th century, it took centuries for other nations to adopt its use. Which is to say the date varied from country to country during the periods we like to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment (don't forget the French Republican Calendar!), and Industrial Revolution. The US adopted the current calendar just in time to screw with George Washington's birthday, and Greece only changed calendars in—wait for it—1923.
Let me say that again, because it kind of blows my mind: Greece has not been using the Gregorian calendar for a full century yet.
Maybe it's that I'm always kind of obsessed with the nature of time, or maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but thinking too hard about calendar changes and moving dates and adding/vanishing days is starting to make me fundamentally nervous. Wednesday doesn't exist, not really! It's all just a vast conspiracy by popes and world leaders and elite historians and astronomers and, um, people who enjoy being able to make plans in advance, I guess.
Therefore, as a pleasing distraction, and since we've been talking about time and Romans and Doctor Who, here is a picture of Rory Williams as the Last Centurion. Because nothing is more comforting than a devoted geek in Roman garb.
Ah, that's better ...