Taking a Leap into Leap Day History

From Irish legends to the odds of being a leap day baby, we share history and fun facts about the day that occurs only once every four years.

Did you know that there was time when the 14th wasn't the only day in February designated for romance?

Maidens eagerly await their chance to propose on Leap Day
Maidens eagerly await their chance to propose on Leap Day

That's right, according to an old Irish legend, every four years on Leap Day, February 29, women were allowed to propose to men (imagine!). That means if you're single, put a ring on it, ladies. And according to the legend, if any lad turned down his lass, he was obligated to buy her 12 pairs of gloves—a pair for every month to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.

Thankfully, gender roles have somewhat evolved since then, but it certainly got us thinking about all of the unusual quirks and lore surrounding Leap Day, including its history, why we need it, and how a proposed new calendar would keep every day the same each year. 

Leap Day History

The origin of Leap Day can be traced back to the days of Julius Caesar. In transitioning from the Roman calendar to the Julian calendar to keep festivals, feast days, and religious celebrations aligned between seasonal changes, the ancients determined that a solar year was 365.25 days. They believed adding one calendar day every four years would balance the annual 1/4 day. While that could be considered a fairly accurate calculation for their time, a true solar year is roughly 365.242 days. Semantics, no?

Not exactly. That minuscule difference would account for about a six-hour loss every calendar year, which would result in a 24-day shift every 100 years. So in 1582, the Gregorian calendar was introduced to correct the error. Rather than a leap year every four years, it was determined that leap years would occur based on three criteria: the year is evenly divisible by 4, but not evenly divisible by 100, unless it is also evenly divisible by 400. Got it?

Leap Day Fun Facts

The Family Circus comic strip debuted on Leap Day 1960.
The Family Circus comic strip debuted on Leap Day 1960.

So after all that math, what are the odds of being born on Leap Day? According to Wolfram Research, it's approximately one in 1,461. At present, there are about 200,000 proud "leapers" in the United States and nearly 5 million worldwide. They even have their own club, The Honor Society for Leap Day Babies, created in 1997. And depending on the country, their birthdays are legally recognized on February 28 or March 1 in nonleap years.

Several notable historical and cultural events have occurred on February 29, including the incorporation of St. Petersburg, Florida in 1892, Hattie McDaniel becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award (for her 1940 supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind), and the debut of the Family Circus comic strip in 1960. Where would we be without Dolly, Billy, Jeffy, and PJ?

Leap Day No More?

NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and USA Today article highlighted the work of two Johns Hopkins professors—an astrophysicist and an applied economist—who have proposed a permanent calendar in which each 12-month period would be the same as the last. Eight months would have 30 days, four months would have 31. No more wondering, "What day does Christmas fall on this year?" Or, "What day is Nana's birthday this year?" According to Professors Richard Conn Henry and Steve Hanke, holidays and birthdays would always fall on the same day of the week. And by Hanke's estimates, it would save millions, and even billions, of dollars in scheduling and interest-calculation errors.

A permanent calendar would certainly make things simpler and more organized, but what's the catch? There are several. First, we would need to add a Leap Week to the end of December about every five to six years to make up for the extra 0.242 days it takes the Earth to orbit the sun each year. How would schools and businesses handle that? Not to mention, what about all those birthdays?

Second, the Gregorian calendar was built around the premise of six days of work and a seventh day for rest and worship. A permanent calendar would throw the Sabbath—and many devout worshippers—into flux. Lastly, the precise amount of time it takes the Earth to make it's daily axis rotations and annual rotation around the sun is rather unpredictable, so the concept of a permanent calendar isn't entirely realistic as it stands now.

So, what will you do with your Leap Day? Propose to your boyfriend? Cross an item off your bucket list? The possibilities are endless, that is until March 1. Happy leaping!

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Twinleapers (not verified) replied:

Spend it with my twin.

March 20, 20165:55pm


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