Once every four years, people born on 29th February can actually celebrate their birthday! There are approximately 5 million people around the world born on the extra day of a leap year – the 366 day years that happen every four years.
Leap years help to keep our calendar on track. A solar year (the amount of time it takes the earth to circle the sun) is 365.24219 days or 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds, but we rely on what is called the Gregorian calendar with just 365 days, so if we didn’t add an extra day to our shortest month every four years, we would lose almost six hours every year and after 100 years our calendar would be off by 24 days.
The History of the Leap Year
It was Julius Caesar that first introduced Leap Years over 2000 years ago. The Julian calendar, which was named after him, had only one rule: any year evenly divisible by four would be a leap year. When he introduced the first leap year around 46 B.C., he overcorrected. His rule — any year evenly divisible by four created too many leap years causing the Julian calendar to drift at a rate of 1 day per 128 years. This was not corrected until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar more than 1500 years later. Now, there’s a leap year every year that is divisible by four, except for years that are both divisible by 100 and not divisible by 400. The added rule about centuries (versus just every four years) was an additional amendment to make up for Julius Caesar’s overcorrection.
People born on a leap year day – 29th February are often called “leaplings” or “leapers.” Most people with a birthday on this rather unique day blow out their candles on 28th February or 1st March instead of waiting to celebrate their birthdays every four years.
Traditions Associated with Leap Years
Leap day as a concept has existed for more than 2000 years and is associated with many old customs, folklore and superstition. It is thought that the centuries-old proposal tradition is buried in Scottish and Irish roots when a deal was struck between Saint Bridget and Saint Patrick. It was decided than on 29th February, women could pop the question to their significant other to balance the traditional roles of men and women in a similar way to how leap day balances the calendar. Centuries later, women still use this bit of folklore as an impetus for marriage proposals.
In some European countries, a man was expected to pay a penalty if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on leap day – typically money or a gown. In the upper classes of such societies, tradition dictates that any man who refused a woman’s proposal had to buy her 12 pairs of gloves. The intention being that the woman could wear the gloves to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.
Leap Years in Other Calendars
A leap year in the Jewish calendar has 13 months and occurs 7 times in a 19-year cycle. In Hebrew, a leap year is referred to as Shanah Me’uberet, or pregnant year. Months in the Jewish calendar are based on the phases of the Moon. A new month begins on the day of the Crescent Moon after the New Moon phase, because the sum of 12 lunar months is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, a 13th month is periodically added to keep the calendar in step with the astronomical seasons.
The Chinese Calendar has leap months. While our modern Gregorian calendar adds only one leap day on February 29 nearly every four years, the Chinese add a whole leap month approximately every three years. The name of a leap month is the same as the previous lunar month. The leap month’s place in the Chinese calendar varies.
Happy Birthday leaplings!