It’s a Funny Old Year

As I was driving home from work this evening listening to Radio 2, as a person of my advancing years does, they were talking about why February only has 28 days. What a good question. And more than that – what is going on with the months and their odd names?

Simon Mayo and his crew really didn’t give an adequate answer, so I felt compelled to rush home and research it myself, and what a tangled web it is!

My hunt around the internet gives variations on the answer, but it seems that the whole thing started with the Romans. Apparently the idea was dreamed up by Romulus, the first king of Rome, to help with agricultural planning. Originally the calendar was based around the lunar rather than the solar cycle and it had only ten months:

  • Martius – March, named for Mars, the Roman god of war
  • Aprilis  -April, named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty
  • Maius – May, named for Maia, the Italic goddess of spring
  • Junius – June, named for Juno, the goddess of marriage and the well-being of women
  • Quintilis – July, the fifth month (we’ll come back to this)
  • Sextilis – August, the sixth month (ditto)
  • September – the seventh month
  • October – the eighth month
  • November – the ninth month
  • December – the tenth month

This  tells us quite a lot:

  • The pagan Romans were much more female oriented in their worship than their Christian successors
  • It explains the strange Sept/ Oct/ Nov/ Dec month names, but chucks in a couple of odd ones as well.
  • They didn’t have enough imagination to come up with more than four interesting names for their months

The year started in March, at the spring equinox, and the months had a mix of 30 and 31 days, giving a total of just 304 days. That clearly wasn’t enough to take you to the following spring equinox, but the days between the end of December and beginning of March were just ignored as no agriculture went on then anyway.

When the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, came along in around 700 BC he didn’t like all of this vagueness around the end of the year. He decided to sync the calendar up with the actual lunar year, which is about 354 days long. He created two new months to do this:

  • Januarius – January, named for Janus, the Roman god of gates and doorways (!)
  • Februarius – February, named for the Roman festival of purification, Februa.

Both of these new months consisted of 28 days, but that made the year too long, so Numa stole a day from each of the 30 day months to reach the pre-requisite 354 days. For some superstitious reason involving even numbers, he subsequently gave January and extra day, giving a year of 355 days.

Sadly though things still didn’t work out – the year just refused to stay in sync with the seasons. To get around this, another new month was created called Intercalaris, simply meaning ‘inter-calendar’. Also known as Mercedinus, this month had 27 days and was added after the 23 February every couple of years or so to even things out. It seems this was a bit hit-and-miss (not to mention barking mad) and was often abused.

Then, around 45 BC, Julius Ceaser came onto the scene and brought in some people who knew what they were doing to create a proper solar-based calendar. He got rid of Intercalarius, added in ten days dotted around the year (although, oddly, not February, still the shortest month) and also introduced the concept of an extra day in February every 4 years. This was added in on 24 February, where the old Intercalarius used to be, giving a very confusing double day.

This became the known as the Julian calendar and he also changed the name of Quintilis to Julius, which makes much more sense to become corrupted to July.

Augustus Caesar subsequently tidied up and completed the Julian calendar and, despite his modest contribution, felt entitled to rename Sextilis to Augustus after himself.

So that was all pretty good, except the solar year is not quite 365.25 days long – the Julian calendar gained about three days every 400 years, and we can’t have that!

And so, in 1582, Pope Gregory III tidied things up still further, omitting 3 leap days every 400 years – on the century years that are not integer multiples of 400 – get that? E.g. 2000 was a leap year, but 2100, 2200 and 2300 won’t be. Presumably it was at this time that the odd double day on 24 February was changed to the much simpler 29 February.

So this minor change gives us the Gregorian calendar which we know and love today.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. These days, with the creation of super-accurate atomic clocks, we now have leap seconds, but I don’t think we need to trouble ourselves too much with that…


A History of the Months and the Meaning of their Names –

28 Days? Why February gets the shaft –

Why does February only have 28 Days? –

Julian Calendar –

Leap Year –

Leap Second –


About Darrel Kirby

I am what I am.
This entry was posted in History, Rants & Random Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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