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The first three months of the year feel a little like a sandwich — thick slabs of January and March, with a thin layer of February in the middle. But it took a while to get that recipe to its current form — mainly because calendar makers kept changing how “thin” February should be.

The modern calendar has its roots in ancient Rome. Its original calendar had only 10 months, beginning with March and ending with December. At the end of the year, days were added to keep in line with the seasons.

Around 713 B.C., though, king Numa Pompilius added two months to the end of the year — January and February.

The Romans considered even numbers unlucky, so most of the months were either 29 or 31 days long. To keep the calendar in line with the length of 12 lunar months, though, one month had to have an even number of days. And since February came at a time of year associated with the dead, it got the nod — 28 days.

It wasn’t that long every year, though. Some years it was as short as 23 or 24 days, with extra days added after that to keep in line with the seasons.

The calendar was adjusted many times over the following centuries. Finally, Julius Caesar standardized the calendar at its current form. February was set at 28 days, with a leap day every fourth year. The leap-day rule was tweaked in the 16th century, giving us the present-day calendar — with a thin slice of February as the second month of the year.

Script by Damond Benningfield

Today's program was made possible by Dr. Cameron Mitchell, professor emeritus, supporting research and outreach at McDonald Observatory.


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