Floods, rain, snow, wind, oriental viruses – is February the most dismal month of the year or what? Yes, the climate always takes a turn for the worst once autumn morphs into winter; but December receives a bye on account of Christmas; January gets a relatively easy ride because it’s a clean slate and all the good people enter it on a wave of over-optimistic resolutions; March may still be prone to the occasional biting breeze, but there are indications of spring scattered around that hint at better days to come; yet February is wedged in-between – a dull, dark, dreary nothing of a month that had to buy the sponsorship of St Valentine and give itself an extra day every four years just to make it seem interesting. When it comes to the twelve-month calendar, February is the spiritual soulmate of a day like Tuesday or a county like Bedfordshire.

The novelty of February 29 retains a certain intriguing quality purely on account of it only appearing at four-yearly intervals. Those born when it falls find themselves in the strange position of only being able to celebrate their ‘real’ birthday every leap year, which means they can justify being rather flexible when having to declare how old they are. Had I myself been born on the nearest February 29 to my actual date of birth, I’d be celebrating my thirteenth birthday in 2020. And whilst such an anomaly could be viewed as a canny (if futile) ‘get out of jail’ card for an opportunistic paedophile, I guess it’s the nearest thing the Gregorian calendar has to ‘showbiz years’. However, the whole concept of a leap year seems to be best embodied in February and its extra day, which gives a month with so little to shout one of its few notable distinctions.

Most countries seem to work around potentially problematic issues thrown up by February 29 by declaring March 1 to be the legal date anyone born on February’s extra day would be recognised as turning 18, for example. Mind you, if one was to be rigid about it, what a quite appealing thing it would be to only have to celebrate a birthday every four years. For those of us who dread the annual approach of that day when we’re reminded of everything we’ve failed to achieve in the past twelve months, only having to endure it every time the Olympics comes around might actually make it feel as special as we’re constantly pressurised into pretending it is once a year. A pity the day we’re born is one of the few aspects of who we are that we can’t control or change – though I’ve no doubt the Labour Party leadership contenders are planning to propose ‘self-identified birthday rights’ as we speak.

The roots of this aberration in the calendar lie in the inconvenient fact that a complete revolution by the earth around the sun takes six hours longer than a nice, neat 365 days. The gradual accumulation of an additional 24 hours within four years therefore necessitates an extra day being added to the calendar to prevent the eventual order of the seasons being thrown into disarray. The Ancient Greeks and the Romans, who were quite a clever lot, worked all this out and incorporated it into their respective calendars, those from which our own slowly developed. The most significant change since then came in 1582, with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar as an attempt to correct perceived faults in the Julian calendar; although immediately adopted by most Catholic countries in Western Europe it was slow to catch on globally.

Britain and its colonies didn’t convert to the Gregorian calendar until 1752; doing so necessitated the undeniably strange process of having to bypass almost two whole weeks – the most extreme example of putting the clocks forward in history. Essentially, Wednesday 2 September that year was followed by Thursday 14 September, a move which brought the British Empire into line with the major European powers excepting Russia, which didn’t drop the Julian calendar until as late as 1918; this means, for example, that any study of the Napoleonic Wars from a Russian perspective requires the use of ‘Old Style’ and ‘New Style’ dates in order that the scholar doesn’t become confused. Mind you, I guess it must have been awkward arranging international dates in advance when there were two competing calendars which were separated by weeks…
‘Where were you? I waited for three days and you never showed up!’
‘Sorry, I thought we were using the Julian calendar.’

Interestingly, the presence of Valentine’s Day in the middle of February – the day that means a lot when you receive a card and is downgraded to a crass commercial con when you don’t – is echoed on February 29 in some cultures via the tradition of ‘Bachelor’s Day’. This is loosely observed in the UK and Ireland, and is a twist on that cringe-inducing stunt in which narcissistic dicks embarrassingly propose to their girlfriends in public places, pressurising their intended into accepting when a gawping crowd demands a specific outcome. In this case, the roles are reversed and it is the woman who has ‘the right’ to propose; an additional incentive for the woman is that if the man turns her down, he is obliged to financially compensate her. It goes without saying this ritual is now seized upon every four years as nauseating filler by regional news magazine programmes and daytime television. A four-year gap at least spares viewers something.

Oddly, not many household names or people of distinction were born on February 29. Looking through a list, the only one who stood out for me was actor Joss Ackland (b. 1928), a man in possession of central-heated vocal chords that must have made him a fortune in TV ad voiceovers for decades. It’s a similar situation when it comes to those who died on February 29. Monkee Davy Jones passed away on that day in 2012, though it was interesting to note Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer in 2011, was hanged by the Islamabad authorities on February 29 2016 in order to prevent his supporters from annually marking the anniversary of his execution.

I suppose an extra day on the calendar once every four years remains such an oddity that one can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a permanent extra day of the week – though given how many excessive hours Brits already work in comparison to their continental cousins, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been introduced. One feels such a day wouldn’t sit between Saturday and Sunday as an additional 24 hours of relaxation, but would probably be lodged between Wednesday and Thursday as an extension of the working week. In the Year Zero revamp that followed the 1789 French Revolution, attempts to develop a secular republic accompanied a desire to ‘decimalise’ the calendar along with currency and the number of hours in the day. A week was extended to ten days, though even this radical approach to redrawing everything still included an extra day every leap year.

So, this most miserable of months has one more further 24 hours of cold, wet ‘n’ windy drudgery to endure than it had in 2019, ’18 and ’17, and then we hit March. There probably won’t be any immediately noticeable change in the air, but at least it won’t be February anymore.

© The Editor