Clock keeps ticking on calendar reform, as another leap year passes by

Feb. 29 approaches, with advocates pushing hard for long-shot changes

One of the main quirks of the Gregorian calendar is the appearance of Feb. 29 once every four years.
MCT/Getty Images

In 2016, as with nearly every year divisible by 4 in the Gregorian calendar, the world counts down to leap day on Feb. 29.

Because of the natural solar cycle’s slight disparity with the Western, Christian calendar introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory, the second month’s extra day is necessary every fourth orbit of the Earth around the sun.

The 365-day year has reigned since Julius Caesar was Rome’s emperor. But the entire scheme is falling behind, and in 10,000 years, it will be a full three days slow.

Now, for a whole host of reasons — not the least of which is months with different day totals, dates that don’t fall on the same day of the week from year to year and interspersed leap seconds — the voices calling for major reform to the international standard for timekeeping are growing louder.

One of the most frequently cited possible replacements is the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar, devised by Johns Hopkins University physics and astronomy professor Richard Henry and his colleague Steve Hanke, an economics professor.

Their new system would regularize 364 days, exactly 52 weeks and 12 months (four with 31 days and the rest with 30 days). Although it maintains the seven-day week, their new system requires an intercalary leap week, called Extra, that would come at the end of December every five or six years. 

As an integral part of the plan, the entire globe will shift to Universal Time, akin to Greenwich Mean Time. All the world’s highly confusing (and mostly arbitrary) time zones would be devolved into local working hours. But international travel, meetings, transactions and communications would be greatly simplified by relying primarily on one standard time, regardless of geography. If it’s noon (just after dawn) in New York, it’s the exact same time (with midday light) in York, England. Despite pilots already setting a good example of how to make use of a single time, there are health concerns that body clocks would falter and jet lag might worsen.

Hanke-Henry’s proponents argue that the reform would reduce calendrical idiosyncrasies, increase efficiency and save time for schedulers and accountants. Having calendar dates always fall on the same day of the week would bring economic advantages, they say, and could mean much less work for schools, employers and event planners.

Hanke said the transition would “probably [cost] much less than the cost incurred when countries switched to metric.”

“Some may think that it’ll be too much hassle to switch calendars, but we’ve done it before many times,” he said. “In 1917, Russia switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and in 1923, Greece did the same. The Gregorian was just superior to the Julian and became widely used and spontaneously adopted.”

He added, “Even today, many people use ethnic or religious calendars in conjunction with the Gregorian calendar, and there’s no reason people couldn’t continue to do the same” with his calendar, which preserves the Sabbath concept. “So there would be no complications or conflicts on that account.”

Caesar handing a calendar to Pope Gregory, who introduced his system in 1582.
Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT/Getty Images

Hanke and Henry are so ambitious about the shift that Jan. 1, 2018, is their target date of implementation. From then on, every new year would begin on a Sunday (making it a “perennial” calendar), Halloween would be Oct. 30, and Friday the 13th would always occur on the same four dates.

Yet for the 5 million people around the world with missed Feb. 29 birthdays most years, they’ll have something to look forward to in the new arrangement, in which February has 30 days. But many leap-day babies — of whom there are some 200,000 in America — are accustomed to less celebration of when they were born, so the group may be as ambivalent as the general population about big changes to how society measures the passage of time.

The Worldwide Leap Year Festival is regularly held across the state border between the towns of Anthony, Texas, and Anthony, New Mexico. One organizer associated with that celebration is Keizer, Oregon, resident Raenell Dawn, who runs the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies. She would back any calendar reform that would line up better with the seasons.

“If our day or calendar needs to change, to perfect the system,” Dawn said, “it’s necessary to do what we gotta do. When those changes happen in history, the people involved are always going to be people who complain about it.”

However, she acknowledged, switching to the new calendar would be a double-edged sword. While Feb. 29 birthdays would no longer be exceptional, she wonders, “What would happen to those people who are born in that [‘Extra’] week? They’re the ones who are going to have the new club: ‘Leap Week Birthday Club’ or something. They would have to choose Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 to observe [their birthdays], like we do.”

But Dawn asks whether the change truly makes sense. “If there’s so much simplicity, does the part that’s going to be a mess really make it worth it?”

Next Monday evening, Dawn expects to honor the occasion by attending “Leap into Literacy Night, reading Leap Day books like Leopold’s Long Awaited Leap Year Birthday.” Aiming to promote awareness among young children, she said, “It’s not just about a little frog with a birthday.”

Five babies, all born on Feb. 29, 1928, with nurses at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Many attempted calendar reforms have come and gone, due to objections from farmers, businessmen and others, so the effort would probably require a massive push on social media, a political body to oversee adoption, and a substantial one-time cost to deploy the new schedule.

The Hanke-Henry model adds significant convenience to the calendar, while losing some accuracy. So, it’s not perfect. But like proposals to convert the U.S. to the metric system, the idea has won praise. Regardless, the inventors actually credit other thinkers with having done the initial logistical work sewing the months together.

Other potential options include a range of systems that modify the length of weeks (the Cotsworth 13-month plan once used by the Eastman Kodak Company), or a lunisolar version (like the modified Hebrew calendar) with a leap month.

Whether or not the world decides to go with the newest calendar reform, those pesky additional 0.2422 days in the solar year really do complicate the mathematics. With many societies still preferring non-Western, traditional calendars, Hanke and Henry could face an uphill battle in persuading people and countries about the merits of their business-friendly calendar. The proposal has not yet been backed by the United Nations or any government.

“We have taken a bottoms-up approach at this point,” said Hanke. “You have to generate ‘time talk’ and the spontaneous adoption of a new innovation before you go top side for some sort of ‘official’ stamp of approval.”

Correction: This article has been modified to show that the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar has four times when the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday. A different proposal, the Symmetry454 calendar, does not have a single Friday the 13th.

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