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March 06, 2014
Actually, it was eleven days that disappeared into the void.
On September 2, 1752, millions of people in Great Britain and its colonies went to sleep and woke up on September 13, 1752.
Blame (or thank) the British Calendar Act of 1751, which decreed that Thursday the 14th would follow Wednesday the 2nd in 1752. Why? Up until that point, the official British calendar differed from the European calendar by eleven days. Unlike the rest of Europe, Great Britain had continued to use the Julian calendar (so named after Julius Caesar) since its invention in 45 BC.
The Julian calendar was surprisingly accurate, varying from the lunisolar (or solar) calendar by only eleven and a half minutes a year. By the 18th century, though, that discrepancy had placed the calendar ten days behind.
In 1752, then, the English adopted the Gregorian calendar (also called the Civil calendar and the Western Calendar), introduced to the rest of Europe in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (ten days were dropped then, too). When Turkey, the last European country to switch, adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1927, thirteen days had to be skipped in order to catch up.
Which brings up the question: why don't we just follow the solar calendar?
Solar months only contain 29.5 days: Not only is it difficult to mark a half-day on the calendar, but the entire year ends up with only 354 days, meaning that seasonal holidays and festivals would fall out of whack with their intended season.
Early calendars were based on the lunar-solar calendar, with seasonal holidays drifting further and further from their intended date. The calendar was reformed via the Egyptian leap year system, adding an extra day every four years. Cleopatra introduced the system to her visiting lover, Julius Caesar, but it still wasn't quite right.
Pope Gregory's calendar determined that only one out of four century years would celebrate a leap year: 2000 and 2400, but not 2100, 2200, and 2300. This prevented drifting dates and is the calendar followed by most of the world, though Chinese New Year is still determined by the lunar-solar calendar; moreover, the Islamic calendar follows a lunar-solar schedule and contains 354 or 355 days.
It suffices to say that it all has to do with why February sometimes has 28 days and sometimes 29.
If you've got an alternate calendar solution to propose--or at least an anecdote about what you'd do with two extra days in the month of February--I'm all ears.
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