Leap years, ill-Fated Years?

2020 is a leap year, but I don’t like that confident about it and do you know why? Because I am Italian and in these latitudes leap years are believed to be bad luck. Of course, there must be a reson that gave origin to this common belief and we have to go back to Roman times to find it .

A year is said to be a leap year, when instead of lasting 365 days, it has one more day, exactly in February, which therefore counts 29 days in all. The reason for this change is to be found in the exact duration of the solar year, that is, the time taken by the Earth to make a complete tour around the sun. History traces the origin of this ancient practice to the time of the Ancient Romans: Julius Caesar in 46 BC already knew that the calendar year actually lasted 365 days and 6 hours. So every 4 years in his calendar, he had added one more day immediately after February 24, a date that was pronounced in Latin “sexto die ante Calendas Martias“, that is ” six days before the first day of March”. The extra day was called “bis sexto die“, that is ” the sixth day for the second time”, that is why the Italian word for leap year is “bisestile” (bis-sexto).

But, why is a leap year associated to bad luck? Well, in Ancient Rome February was the month dedicated to funeral rites, the commemoration of the dead and penance. The 21th of February was also the day of “Feralia” which means “bringing” (in Latin: fero) gifts to the dead.  Roman citizens brought offerings to the tombs of their deceased ancestors, which consisted in the delivery, over a clay pot, of flower garlands, ears of corn, a pinch of salt, bread soaked in wine and loose violets. Even if additional offerings were allowed it seems that the dead were appeased only with ritual offerings. These simple offerings for the dead had been introduced in Lazio perhaps by Aeneas, who had poured wine and violets on the tomb of Anchise. Ovid narrates that once the Romans had neglected to celebrate Feralia, because they were engaged in a war, so,  the spirits of the dead had come out of the tombs, screaming and wandering the streets angrily. After this episode, reparatory ceremonies had been prescribed and the horrible manifestations ceased.

February was therefore commonly considered a bleak and fatal month and the extra day of a leap year made it ever more so. Another hypothesis is that for the ancients, everything that was anomalous and not rational, was to be considered a bad omen, therefore, also a year with an extra day. That is why after many centuries we keep believing that a leap year is not a good thing and how could I think it otherwise, since I woke up the 1st of January with a cold? And if this is just the beginning and 365 more will have to come like this, oh my!!

Happy New Year!!!

The whole Christmas period is all about lights and celebrations which are linked to the winter solstice and date back to ancient Rome traditions and even before. Both the Romans and the Egyptians worshipped Mithras (originally a Persian deity who was said to be either the son of the sun or the companion of the sun) , a very popular deity indeed, whose birth was celebrated by the Romans on the 25th of December, and by the ancient Egyptians on January 6th. Since then, this phase of the year represents the renaissance of the sun and is greeted with various rites, which highlight the new beginning.

January, in fact, whose name comes from the god Janus, is portrayed with two faces: that of a young man and that of an old man with a beard, so that he can look back and forth at the end of the past year and at the beginning of the next. The Egyptians represented Mithras, the new-born sun, by the image of an infant, which they used to bring forth and exhibit to his worshippers on his birthday and kindle lights in token of festivity, so we may understand where the tradition of lighting our towns and houses for Christmas time comes from, but what about the New Year’s fireworks?

Well, New Year’s fireworks had to ward off the forces of evil and the evil spirits that are unleashed, in a moment of transition from the old to the new year, as evil spirits don’t seem to enjoy loud noises. Even the cork of the sparkling wine shot to celebrate midnight is excellent for warding off the evil eyes. The throwing of the shards (on the streets from the windows), which used to be very common in Italy years ago, particularly in Naples, at the midnight of the end of the year,  represents the physical and moral evils that have been accumulated over the year everybody wishes to chase away.
Hence, the noise, the crowd, the fire, the shouts symbolize the new that comes from chaos, the season that changes, the earth that sprouts. For centuries, the men of every civilization have been celebrating the rites of passage, the changing of the seasons, the end of a year and the beginning of a new time, with fire and noise. Bonfires and lit lamps, on the other hand, had the function of illuminating the path of the year that entered.
Therefore, I wish you all that your own path this year may be sparkling, but serene and positive at the same time.