Leap Day

Here we are. Today is that extra day that we get every four years. Leap Day has arrived. A day is the amount of time that it takes the Earth to spin once on its own axis. that is 24 hours. A calendar year is how long it takes the earth to orbit the Sun. And there is where our calendar problem begins. Because the amount of time it takes the earth to circle the Sun isn’t an even number of days. It is 365.24 days. It is close enough to one quarter of a year that the general calendar problem is “solved” by adding an extra day to the calendar every four years. The extra day is added to the year’s shortest month, February. The reason why February is the shortest month of the year involves a lot of ancient politics and we’ve learned to just accept the practice without spending too much time asking why. So today is that day for 2020.

That system would work if the amount of time it took the earth to circle the Sun was 365.25 days. But it isn’t. We’re one tenth of a day short, which means that if we add a leap day every for years, we will eventually get ahead of ourselves and the months will begin to move around the calendar. The amount of variation is 3 days every 400 years, so it takes a while for it to how up. That means that the calendar needs to skip a leap day every once in a while. So he calendar works like this. A leap day is added only if the year is divisible by 4. So we had a leap year in 2016, we have one this year and we will have one in 2024. However, if the year is divisible by 100, there is no leap year, so the year 1900 was not a leap year even though it is divisible by 4. That, however, is not quite accurate enough, so if a year can be divided by 400, then the leap day is added, which is what happened in the year 2000. The century rules were initiated by Pope Gregory and marked the distinction between the Gregorian calendar, which we observe and the former Julian calendar.

Even Gregory’s calendar is not completely perfect and over a period of several hundred millennia would get out of sync. Therefore scientist add a leap second periodically to keep the calendar in sync with the earth’s journey around the year and the flow of seasons. So not every day is 24 hours. Some are 24 hours and 1 second.

All of this calendar adjustment is a big issue for the nearly 5 million people around the world who were born on a leap day. You might not think that being born on February 29 is such a big deal. but when the calendar only has your birthday every four years, there is a dilemma when it comes to stating your age. In South Dakota, for example, a person born on leap day cannot legally consume alcohol until the first of March the year they turn 21 unless that year happens to be a leap year. What is more, an ID with the date February 29 stands out and those responsible for checking them often think that such an ID might be faked. Even though being a leapling (a person born on leap day) is rare, I have met several. The ones I’ve met enjoy and celebrate their uniqueness and have a lot of fun with their birthdays, even when it isn’t a leap year. Some even claim that they get two birthdays when it isn’t a leap year, February 28 AND March 1.

So to all of the leaplings out there, Happy Birthday! I hope your celebration is filled with joy and good experiences.

There are a number of traditions associated with the day. I don’t know the origin of the tradition, but it has been said that leap day is a day when it is acceptable for a woman to propose to a man instead of the other way around. The tradition of men being the ones to propose is rooted in some deep patriarchal traditions, but it has pretty much gone by the wayside these days. I often ask couples who come to me to be married to tell me their proposal story. For most there was a growing awareness that both wanted to marry long before the official proposal took place. The proposal was a kind of formality. When you think about it rationally, why would men hold the power to say whether or not a marriage would take place except for one day every four years?

From that tradition grew some other interesting traditions. In the old comic strip, Lil’ Abner, there was a footrace on Sadie Hawkins day in which unmarried women chased unmarried men and if they caught them they would be married. I don’t remember all of the details, but the day was observed in November for some reason and occurred every year, not just in leap years.

During the Middle Ages, there were laws in some European countries that required a man who refused a woman’s proposal on February 29 to pay a fine. The fine was an amount of money the man was required to give the woman, or in some cases a new gown, or in other cases 12 pairs of gloves. The gloves were to hide the woman’s embarrassment of not having an engagement ring. I don’t know much about that tradition, but it seems like 12 pairs of gloves would be considerably less expensive than an engagement ring.

In Greek and Ukranian folktales it is considered bad luck to marry during a leap year. This tradition has continued in various forms, including the tradition that it is bad luck to marry on leap day. On the other hand the town of Hell, Michigan, home to 70 people, has offered 29 free weddings to couples who come to their town to be married on February 29, 2020 at 2:29 pm. Rev. Yvonne Williams will officiate at the mass ceremony.

According to Google, the temperature in Hell, Michigan when I am writing this journal entry is 17 degrees F, which is well below freezing, so I guess that when Hell freezes might be the only time some couples agree to marry.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!