I WAS born on the last day of February, the runt month of the year. I've always felt sorry for February, squeezed between the big months of January (named for the Roman god Janus, keeper of gateways and entrances) and March (after Mars, the god of war).
February, with only 28 days and no powerful gods to advocate for it, commemorates a pagan fertility and purification festival celebrated by flogging women with animal skins.
February's history of manipulation by calendrical arbiters can be traced back to its origins as the clean-up month that was shrunk or stretched so the calendar could keep pace with the sun's progress through the seasons.
The first Roman calendar, legend has it, had 10 months and no February. Beginning at the vernal equinox with March, it ended with December. In an agricultural society, winter was of little importance, and thus went undivided.
January and February were added about 700BC by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. He made all the months 29 or 31 days - the Romans were said to be suspicious of even numbers - but shortened February, the last month of the year, by giving it only 28. By the time of Julius Caesar, the calendar was three months out of sync with the solar year.
This prompted Caesar to announce a new calendar in 46BC. Although, as with many facts surrounding my birth month, there is some dispute - some historians say Caesar gave February 29 days - most believe his calendar preserved a 28-day February, with 29 days only in a leap year.
Next, it was the Church's turn. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed a new calendar in a Europe divided by the Reformation. Many changes were made, but the Pope passed up yet another chance to grant February equality with the other months.
The Protestant opposition at first refused to accept the Gregorian calendar, and by the time England finally adopted it in 1752, King George II had to throw out 11 days from September to catch up, causing consternation.
According to some accounts, tenants rioted because their landlords charged a full month's rent. Commemorative dates were shifted. And in the American colonies, George Washington had his birthday changed from Feb 11 to Feb 22.
It's messy, even dangerous, changing how we measure time, but Pope Gregory was hardly the last one to try. The League of Nations received more than 150 new calendar designs, and the United Nations has considered more proposals since.
Just to name a few: There's the Sexagesimal Calendar, the Hermetic Lunar Week Calendar, the 30x11 Calendar (which supersizes December to 35 or 36 days) and the Kluznickian Calendar (which adds the month of Aten, after an Egyptian sun god, and renames Dec 29 'Nicksday', after Nick Kluznick). Each proposal involves a gimmick that supposedly modernises the calendar.
But I have a simpler proposal that won't lead to chaos or rioting in the streets, and will correct the historical injustices against February: Move the last day of January and the last day of March into February to make it a normal month with 30 days, and a respectable 31 on leap years.
This would not add or subtract a single day from the calendar year, and there would be no troublesome rejuggling of holidays. As an added benefit, making the first three months of the year each 30 days would bring them into closer alignment with the lunar cycle. Who could object to this?
I calculate that only two in 365 people, or about 0.5 per cent of the population, were born on either Jan 31 or March 31, the two days that would vanish from the calendar. They could choose to have their birthdays bumped either back one day or ahead to the first day of the next month. A few might even welcome the opportunity of switching to gain a prettier birthstone. No one would have to change his astrological sign. And I do not suppose we will hear anything but cheers from those birthday-impaired people born on Feb 29.
Of course, those born on the new leap day of Feb 31 will bear the same burden, but they are not yet around to object.
By Philip S Hill
NEW YORK TIMES
The writer is a co-founder of a life insurance brokerage firm.