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!!