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A Few High Kicks While I Leap Frog for Joy Over an Extra Day

By Deb Thomas.

Feeling a little weary of winter? Or in need of some sunshine? Winter has me in its grip; I’ve got cabin fever. It hasn’t been a horrible snow-encrusted season, and it isn’t over; there may well be more snow storms. Yet, like the robin bobbin’ along, I saw patches of green grass and crocus heads poking up through the matted srubby grass areas in the garden, and I’m ready.

I’d like the vernal equinox to hurry up a bit, and the timetable to give me more sunshine. But no. This year, I’ll have to endure (cellos, start your fugues) as we get one more day of winter; it’s Leap Day. Repeat after me:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

All the rest have thirty-one,

Save February – she alone–

Hath eight days and a score,

‘Til Leap Year gives

Her one day more.

And the way I feel lately – wanting to clean out a closet, take the garage apart, paint some walls – and also, a weird kind of urgency to hurry with the warmer weather, along with things going kablooey across social media and on television–I’ll blame it on this leap year.

It may as well be the reason why things seem so mad right now. We have mad people running Presidential campaigns, mad prices for gasoline, mad hipsters congregating on street corners, and very mad weather. By mad, I mean kind of crazy. It fits then, that  “Leap Day” is our bonus day tagged on to every four years; a mad slice of the pie, a small shred of time, a tiny sliver of minutes and stardust that extends the sum of four years – to equal just about one extra day. Just like superstitions about full moon fever, this once-every-four-years’ day is not only a great exercise in understanding astronomical science, but is also deeply steeped in folklore. How will you spend your accumulated 24 hours?

Pre-Leap Year History  Do you ever want more hours in a day? Julius Ceasar realized the calendar in 5 B.C. was not syncing up with seasonal dates and learned from Egyptian astronomers that the year was approximately 365 ¼ days long. He added an extra day to February every four years to compensate a calendar based on 364 days. He decreed the start of the new calendar to begin in 46 B.C., and it was to have 15 months to allow for the accumulated mistake. However, Romans didn’t count days the way we do with numbers (First of February, Second of February and so forth), but had a somewhat strange way of enumerating them as “calends, nons, and ides.” It is confusing to comprehend in modern terms, let alone figure out what good old Ceasar was doing, so let’s just understand that the extra day did not make it to the end of February, but was placed elsewhere.

POPE GREGORYHowever, the new and improved Julian Calendar gave a more accurate accounting of days, it wasn’t quite where it is today, and that’s thanks to Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 fiddled with the math to adjust the leap years this way: one yearly earth rotation around the sun takes 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds. Over time, the calendar was off by ten days accumulation. The Pope subtracted three leap years in every 400 (years which end in 00, unless they are divisible by 400). This makes 1700, 1800, 1900 and 2100 plain old regular years. But, 1600, 2000, and 2400 are leap years.

LEAP YEAR extra day graphic


A leap year is any year consisting of 366 days; once every four years in our current Gregorian calendar, a day is added at the end of February to get the days in sync with the accumulation of extra time. A year of 365 days is actually longer than the addition of 24 hours multiplied by 365 days; to be exact, each year equals 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds. Leap Years are necessary to keep the calendar in sync with the earth’s rotation around the sun. In other words, every four years those extra hours add up. Over a century, this extra time would add up to make the seasons off by almost 24 days; the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere would shift from March 20 to April 13.

The Gregorian calendar year is intended to match the length of the cycle of the seasons. Known as a tropical year, it is approximately 365.2422 days. This agrees to within a half a minute of the length of the tropical year. It will take approximately 3300 years before the Gregorian calendar is even one day out of step with the seasons.

Other Facts and Fun Stuff  (and not much science):

Before the Julian Calender   January and February were added in 700 BCE (before Common Era) by Numa Pompililius to account for the lunar cycle-calendar. This made February the last month of the year.

Statistics  You had one in 1461 chances of being born on February 29th  (1/365 x 4 = 1460 days, plus 1, equals 1461).

Scottish saying   “A leap year is never a good sheep year.”

 Leap Day Babies    Those born on the leap year day are called leaplings. It’s said they have unique, unusual talents and personalities. They also get to choose their birthday, February 28th, or March 1st, so during a leap year, they can celebrate twice.

Ladies, start your engines On Leap Day only, February 29, an old tradition allows for women who wore a red petticoat (slip), to propose to men. However, if the man declined, then he was fined a kiss, a silk dress, or 12 pairs of gloves. This was also known as Bachelor’s Day in some places.

The tradition of a woman proposing on a leap year has been attributed to various historical figures. One, although much disputed, was St Bridget in the 5th Century. She is said to have complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. St Patrick then supposedly gave women a single day in a leap year to pop the question – the last day of the shortest month. Another popular story is that Queen Margaret of Scotland brought in a law setting fines for men who turned down marriage proposals put by women on a leap year. Sceptics have pointed out that Margaret was five years old at the time and living far away in Norway. The tradition is not thought to have become commonplace until the 19th Century.

Leap Year I have you roped

It is believed that the tradition of women proposing on this day goes back to the times when the leap year day was not recognized by English law. Under this theory, if the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with the convention of a man proposing (link).

Quick! Hide my Naked Ring Finger! The tradition of buying a scorned woman twelve pairs of gloves is thought to have been a penalty, but in reality, it may have been to spare a girl the embarrassment of not being able to display an engagement ring.

Some Movie Trivia   Made in 2010 with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, the movie titled “Leap Year” involves a young woman who takes a trip to Ireland, and gets involved with an Irish bloke. Eventually through ensuing missteps, trials and tribulations, Leap Day plays a key role in the plot.

According to English Law, however, February 29th had no legal status. Therefore any contracts or business doings were not done on the day, or, those that may occur were not seen as legal.

Sadie Hawkins Day  Dances are held in the United States, to commemorate the older tradition built around women proposing to men, to be held on or near February 29th, where girls could ask the boys out. American cartoonist Al Capp invented a character named Sadie Hawkins in his Li’l Abner comic strip, after this unique tradition called “Sadie Hawkins Day.”

Leap year Ring toss

Unlucky Day  In Scotland leap day is considered as unlucky as Friday 13th for anyone born on that day. Also, Greeks try to talk couples out of getting married in a leap year; they believe it is quite unlucky, and 1 in 5 Greek couples will honor this superstition. Additionally, babies born in a leap year were thought to be sicklings who would be difficult to bring up and raise.

Other Random Stuff (no science was harmed in the writing of the following):

  • In the plot of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance the main character Frederic discovers that as he is a “leapling,” he must continue to serve as an apprentice for 63 more years before he can be with his own true love.
  • In Texas, the town of Anthony calls itself the “Leap Year Capital of the World” and holds an annual festival filled with guided trips and square dances.
  • In the film “Leap Year,” the British actor Matthew Goode is reported as saying he thought the movie would be the “worst film of 2011,” but liked that the filming location brought him close to home to be near girlfriend and baby daughter.
  • February 29 is Rare Disease Day.
  • Today you are working for free if you’re on a fixed annual wage.
  • Can you burp the alphabet or play piano like Liberace? Astrologers believe people born on February 29 have unusual talents.
  • Hugh Hefner opened his first Playboy Club on February 29 1960.
  • The character Leap Day William who appeared in an episode of 30 Rock wears blue and yellow.
  • The French call leapfrog “saute-mouton” which translates literally as “leap sheep”.
  • The frog is a symbol associated with February 29. The Australian rocket frog can leap over two meters.

For more Leap Year Nuggets of Joy, try these websites:  Random Facts, Leap Day Facts and Folklore, and Craziest Facts about Leap Years.