2020 is a special time not only for being the start of a new decade, but it’s also a leap year, and that means an extra day on the calendar for us. Whether you will be partying 29 February away or passing it like any other day, there is a lot to know about this peculiarity of the Gregorian calendar. Let’s check out 10 of the most interesting facts surrounding leap days!
These additional 24 hours are built into the calendar to ensure that it stays in line with the Earth’s movement and we don’t start the new year before our planet has finished its revolution around the sun. If we rigidly stick to a calendar of 365 days a year, there will be a deviation of approximately six hours per year and we would fall out of sync with the seasons. This means that people living in the Northern Hemisphere could be celebrating Christmas in the middle of summer in a matter of a few centuries!
Leap years with an additional day solve this problem, but there are criteria to fulfil in order for a year to be considered a leap year:
And that’s enough of the technical stuff—let’s get down to some fun!
Famous for his affair with the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, a lesser-known fact about Julius Caesar is that he was the one who introduced the first leap year. Inspired by the Egyptian calendar, he introduced this new concept around 46 B.C. The Julian calendar that followed the movement of the sun had only one rule: Any year evenly divisible by four would be a leap year. Turns out, that created too many leap years, and it wasn’t until Pope Gregory XIII came along 1,500 years later and introduced his version of the calendar that we finally received the Gregorian calendar we commonly use nowadays.
Leap year baby Mary Ann Brown, who grew up in Anthony, Texas, suggested a birthday festival for all those who were born on a leap day. Ever since 1988, the towns of Anthony, Texas, and Anthony, New Mexico would host this festival sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. Since no other city regularly sponsored a similar event, the governors of each state proclaimed Anthony the “leap year capital of the world.”
People born on a leap day bear the nickname of ‘leaper‘ or ‘leapling,’ and in regular years, they usually celebrate their birthday on 28 February or 1 March. In the spirit of inclusion, The Honour Society of Leap Year Day Babies was established as a club for people born on 29 February and counts more than 11,000 people worldwide as its members.
There is also a Guinness World Record regarding leap year babies, rewarded to a British family for producing three consecutive generations of leaplings. Peter Anthony Keogh was born in Ireland in 1940 on a leap day. His son, Peter Eric, was born on a leap day as well in 1964, and his granddaughter Bethany Wealth was born in the UK in 1996, also on a leap day. Freaky much?
In 1948, the women of Aurora, Illinois, decided to do something against what they believed to be sexist leap day traditions by taking over male-dominated city positions such as the mayor, fire chief, and police officers. With the power they took, they decided to arrested unmarried men for the crime of being single. Whew, that’s a lot of pressure to commit, for sure!
La Bougie du Sapeur, a comical French newspaper, was first published in 1980 and only publishes once every four years. The name of this rare paper translates to “sapper’s candle,” which comes from an old French comic book character who was born on a leap day. Fun fact: A sapper is a soldier who is responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, and laying and clearing mines. According to National Public Radio in America, the paper sells around 150,000 copies every time it’s published, a number that surpasses most of the daily newspapers in France.
In the northern part of Italy, there is a town called Reggio nell’Emilia, whose people refer to a leap year as l’ann d’la baleina. Its literal translation is “the whale’s year” and the reason behind it is because the townsfolk believed that whales give birth to their young only during leap years—way to go!
In Taiwan, parents are thought more likely to die during a leap year so a married daughter should return home during the leap month and bring pig trotter noodles to her parents in order to wish them good health and good fortune. Likewise, in Scotland, it used to be considered unlucky for someone to be born on leap day, whereas in Greece, it is considered to be bad luck to get married during a leap year, but the Greeks also believe you shouldn’t get divorced either because it will stop you from ever finding happiness again. Go figure!
If there are some cultures out there who believe that leap days are unlucky days, there are others that believe in the exact opposite. For some, leap days have an enlightening quality. In the spiritual community, the twenty-ninth day breaks down to 11 (2+9) and it is thought to represent spiritual awakening. February is also the second calendar month of the year, and the number two in numerology has a feminine characteristic, standing for following your soul’s ambitions and desires.
There is a saying that the nun Saint Brigid of Kildare asked Saint Patrick to allow women to propose to men because some male suitors were too timid to propose, back in the day when only men were allowed to propose. Saint Patrick then made an exception on leap days for women to propose.
In the villages of southern Germany, there is a tradition of boys going to their love interest’s back garden and putting up a small May-tree (also known as hawthorn trees) with ribbons tied in during the night before May Day. During leap years, however, things are flipped around and the girls get to be the one putting up the trees.
In many European countries, tradition dictates that any man who refuses a woman’s proposal on 29 February has to give some sort of compensation. In Denmark, the man has to buy the woman 12 pairs of gloves when rejecting her proposal so that they can hide the woman’s embarrassment of not having an engagement ring. In Finland, men have to give the women enough fabric to make a skirt when turning her down. That’s a lot of freebies!