Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Intercalation

Yes, it’s a leap year and Friday is leap day, but why are we all leaping?

“Leap” means many things – mostly to do with jumping or bounding – but none seems to relate to Feb. 29, when we attach that quadrennial day to the calendar. In fact, adding Feb. 29 would seem to delay the leap from February – the worst month weatherwise in the year – to March, the most hopeful month, the one in which spring begins.

A century-old edition of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary fails to clarify the issue. In explaining “leap year,” it offers: “The name may refer to the fact that in the bissextile year, any fixed festival after February falls on the next week-day but one to that on which it fell in the preceding year, not on the next week-day as usual.” Back when feast days meant more to people than they do today, that sentence probably quickly made sense.

Perhaps we can be thankful that, for whatever reason, we call it leap day. Its other name is more of a mouthful: intercalary day.

Yet, intercalary day makes a lot more sense. It simply means to insert something – like a day – into a calendar.

And intercalating is exactly what we do Friday.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The humble Valentine

While many of us may suspect that St. Valentine’s Day was invented by the modern greeting card, flower and candy industries, the holiday is ancient – and unsaintly.

More than 2,000 years ago, Romans celebrated Lupercalia, a fertility feast that included ceremonies in which men drew women by lots. When the early Christian church tried to “depaganize” Roman feasts, it turned this one into a festival of love in which people drew the names of saints instead of women. It was named for St. Valentine, probably because his feast day roughly coincided with the mid-February celebration of Lupercalia. The priest had been beaten and beheaded around Feb. 14, 270, for practicing Christianity.

By the 19th Century the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day in England, at least, was not unlike today’s. One British author wrote in 1873: “The approach of the day is now heralded by the appearance in the printsellers’ shop windows of vast numbers of missives calculated for use on this occasion, each generally consisting of a single sheet of post paper, on the first page of which is seen some ridiculous coloured caricature of the male or female figure, with a few burlesque verses below.” These, the writer adds, are employed chiefly by “the humbler classes.”

So have a humble – but happy – Valentine’s Day!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Delightful warnings

Red sky in morning, Sailors’ warning.
Red sky at night,
Sailors’ delight.

The ancient adage may have developed from maritime experience, but it’s based on sound science – at least in this part of the world, where most weather systems move from west to east. Just last Friday, a blood-red dawn presaged a day of rain and, in my home town, messy ice.

A red sky in the morning occurs when clouds arrive from the west and the sky to the east is clear. As the sun rises, billions of dust particles in the otherwise clear atmosphere bend the solar light to the red spectrum, causing the edge of the cloud front to glow. More moisture in the air yields richer reds. Often the clouds signal bad weather, perhaps just rain or snow, but maybe the wind, too.

A red sky at night means the sun’s setting rays are passing through hundreds of miles of cloudless atmosphere, weather that’s heading our way and promising a sunny day tomorrow.

Whether delighted or forewarned, we should pause to enjoy either sky’s ephemeral light show, bursting with brilliance that countless artists have pursued and none has ever really captured.