29 February: A few thoughts on calendars

Who noticed the Sun rise in winter between the Wolf's Teeth
And thought to measure the summer's trajectory?
Who measured the shadow?
Who sank the great pits for the calendar stones?
Who kept in mind an ancient calculation
And served his tribe for a memory?

From 'Cosmology: A Prologue' by James Fenton (b 1949)

I suppose it really only became necessary to have a means of numbering the years when history needed to be written down accurately. Before that past events were dated by their coincidence with notable occurrences such as floods, eclipses or famines, and the past could be referred to as ‘in our grandfathers’ time’ or even further back by counting generations as in ‘Abraham begat Isaac’.

Lunar Calendar in the Lascaux Caves about 15,000 years old

In pre-history the seasons rolled by in the same way every year, some fat some lean, but the lengthening and shortening of the days was a constant, and there was of course always the moon to count by. The lunar calendar is still used in some cultures, notably the Islamic calendar which is twelve lunar months and so falls out of line with the solar year by eleven days every cycle, which is why Ramadan shifts dates every year.

To make matters more complicated some calendars like the Chinese one are lunisolar, i.e. they fix the start of the year in relation to the winter solstice but count the length of the year by the moon.

The Romans used the Julian calendar, which was reformed by Julius Caesar in 46BC and it was this calendar that added an extra day once every four years to compensate for the fact that the earth orbits around the sun in a bit more than 365 days.

L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire by Camille Flammarion (1888)

However even this extra day is insufficient to compensate for the period of the earth’s orbit and by the sixteenth century the seasons and the counting were out getting of sync. It is at this point my brain starts to hurt, but if we think about it in relation to the spring equinox it starts to make sense. Twice a year the earth reaches a point in its orbit where its tilt is such that day and night have equal length. That is a constant. In spring in the northern hemisphere that now occurs on 21 March (as Caesar set it) but by 1582 it had drifted back to March 11th.

The Gregorian reform was introduced by the Papacy so that the spring equinox would always be on 21 March and this was done by missing out ten days and going straight from the 11th to the 21st March and also by amending the number of leap years so there isn’t one on the turn of the century. (There are some exceptions but let’s not go there). With me so far?

(A Book of Hours in the Bibliotheque National de France)

The Protestant British thought this reform was a nasty Catholic plot, so the Gregorian calendar was not introduced to Britain until 1752 when we had to omit the days between the 2nd September and the 14th September to correct the drift. The Orthodox Churches still keep to a revised version of the Julian calendar, which is why Orthodox Church festivals do not coincide with those of the western churches.

Lecture over. I’ve been meaning to work that out in my own mind since I started this blog, because so often I look something up and I’m told that it’s a different date in the Orthodox calendar. Now I know why.

So why are girls allowed to propose on 29th February? I like the legend of how it began particularly because it concerns a conversation between St Bridget and St Patrick both of whom have appeared on this blog before. Walking together on the edge of Lough Neagh, St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick that women always had to wait for men to propose. After a bit of negotiation St. Patrick agreed that girls could propose just once every four years on Leap Year day.

The practice is first recorded in 1288, when Queen Margaret of Scotland passed a law that allowed women to propose in a leap year. Any man churlish enough to refuse his sweetheart’s proposal paid a fine ranging from a kiss to a silk dress or a pair of gloves. The girl apparently should wear a red petticoat to boost her chances – so all those red scanties we see on Valentine’s day go back a long long way…….!

So what would you cook for your sweetheart on the night you decided to pop the question? I’ve been thinking about this. It definitely needs to be something you both eat out of the same dish - so you can spoon together and segue naturally into your proposal. I'm thinking fondue...hearty, easy and ever-so-retro.

Actually I love fondue, which is really only Welsh Rarebit for toffs. I've made a Cornish version with Menallack cheese from Penryn. Menallack is a single herd cows' milk cheese made similarly to Cheshire cheese, it's nutty and delicious. I got it from the Newlyn Cheese shop (@newlyncheese) and I used Helford Cider.

Menallack and cider fondue

200ml local cider 150g Menallack or other hard cheese grated. 2 tsp cornflour 1 tbsp cold water, fresh thyme leaves.

Pour the cider into a pan (or heavy fondue dish) and simmer until reduced by a third. Stir in the grated cheese and stir over a gentle heat until completely melted. (Don't do it too fast or it will be grainy not smooth)

Mix the cornflour with the cold water into a paste and pour into the cider and cheese mixture. Cook for another five minutes or so, stirring all the time. Stir in the fresh thyme leaves just before serving.

Serve with crusty bread and more cider. Good Luck!!

Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
All the rest have thirty-one,
Excepting February alone
Twenty-eight is all its score
And on each Leap Year one day more

Traditional Rhyme

No comments: