Leap Year Traditions & Facts
Leap Day is a concept that has existed for more than 2,000 years, and is still associated with age-old traditions, folklore and superstition. Why do we add an extra day to our calendar almost every four years? Leap Years are needed to keep our calendar in alignment with the Earth’s revolutions around the sun. It takes the Earth approximately 365.242199 days (a tropical year) to circle around the Sun once. If we didn’t add a day on February 29 nearly every four years, we would lose almost six hours every year. After only 100 years, our calendar would be off by approximately 24 days!
A leap year helps to prevent the shift that would occur in our calendars because of these six extra hours. Without it, our calendar would eventually fall out of sync with the weather. In 100 years, our calendar would be about 24 days off, which would cause winter-like conditions to occur in July and warm, sunny days in December.
The idea of a leap day was first introduced in the first century BC by Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who decided that every fourth year would have an extra day added to offset the shift. While this was a good plan, it wasn’t perfect. Given that each year had only an extra .242 (six hours) of over time, the extra day added every four years also threw the calendar off, by one day every 128 years.
In 1582, the Gregorian calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII remedied this problem by adopting new rules for calculating leap years, which we use to this day:
- To be a leap year, the year must be evenly divisible by four.
- Any year that is evenly divisible by 100 is not a leap year, unless it is also evenly divisible by 400.
This means that year 1800, 1900, 2100, 2200, 2300 and 2500 are not leap years, while year 2000 and 2400 are leap years. This actually means year 2000 was kind of special, as it was the first time the third rule was used in many parts of the world.
Leap Day Traditions & Facts
Persons born on leap day, February 29, are called “leaplings” or “leapers.” leaplings enjoy 75 percent fewer birthdays than the rest of us over the course of their lives, and they have the special privilege, between leap years, of celebrating their birthdays a full day earlier if they so choose. It was once thought that leapling babies would inevitably prove sickly and “hard to raise,” though no one remembers why. According to astrologers, those born under the sign of Pisces on February 29 have unusual talents and personalities reflecting their special status.
One of the oldest traditions associated with leap year is for a woman to propose to a man on Feb. 29 of a leap year. This tradition is believed to go back to an old Irish legend, which says that a man who refuses the proposal of a woman on a leap day must buy her a gift as an apology. Some versions of the tradition say the gift should be 12 pairs of gloves, so the woman can hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.
In some places, Leap Day is known as “Bachelors’ Day.”
Amphibian Ark, an international organization that advocates for the protection of amphibians and their habitat, partners with zoos around the world in a leap year campaign called Leaping Ahead of Extinction. The program encourages people to visit their local zoo on Feb. 29 to learn about the dangers that amphibians face and ways to protect them.
Feb. 29 also marks Rare Disease Day, an international event designed to raise awareness of uncommon diseases and health conditions.
In Scotland, it used to be considered unlucky for someone to be born on Leap Day, just like Friday 13th, is considered an unlucky day by many. In Greece it’s said to be unlucky for couples to marry during a Leap Year, and especially on Leap Day.
Leap Day is also St Oswald’s Day, named after an archbishop of York who died on February 29, 992. The memorial is celebrated on February 29 during Leap Years and on February 28 during common years.
According to English law, February 29th was ignored and had no legal status. So a crime on the day is no crime at all.
The longest time between two leap years is 8 years. Last time was between 1896 and 1904. The next time will be between 2096 and 2104.
A similar modern American tradition, Sadie Hawkins Day, honors “the homeliest gal in the hills” created by Al Capp in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner. In the famous story line, Sadie and every other woman in town were allowed on that day to pursue and catch the most eligible bachelors in Dogpatch. Although the comic strip placed Sadie Hawkins Day in November, today it has become almost synonymous with February 29.
The day also plays a pivotal role in the fictional “The Priates of Penzance,” the most famous Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera that was translated to Broadway and the silver screen. In the story, the hero Frederic realizes his apprenticeship binds him until his 21st birthday, but since his birthday falls on February 29, it means that technically he is only a boy, and won’t reach his 21st birthday until he is in his eighties!