Once every four years a unique date crops up in the calendar, February 29th. It provides that extra day to the month of February. But what is the history behind it?
It all comes down to time-keeping. The solar year, as it turns out, is not an even 365 days. Rather, it takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds for our planet Earth to make a complete revolution around our Sun. Those few hours, minutes, and seconds add up to a full day over time, which thereby accounts for the Leap Day being added.
The practice of adding a Leap Day was begun by Julius Caesar back in 45 BC. Up until that time the Roman calendar had 355 days with an extra 22-day month added every two years. But the seasons would get drastically out of sync because the Roman calendar was based on the lunar cycle.
Once Julius Caesar became Emperor, he commissioned Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to devise a better calendrical system that was based on the sun rather than the moon. The combined efforts of Julius Caesar and Sosigenes resulted in a calendar of 365 days and 6 hours in length, or 365.25 days long. With the Julian Calendar, the Leap Day was added every three years. And yet, the Julian Calendar was not fool-proof. Slight adjustments had to be made, like the tradition of a quadrennial Leap Year being first put into place in the year 8 BC.
Time Magazine reports that the Julian Calendar was 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By 1582 those few minutes and seconds had accumulated into a discrepancy of more than 10 days. Those additional 10 days made it difficult for the Church to accurately calculate the liturgical dates for Easter. Because the math still needed refinement, a new calendar had to be introduced.
In 1582, the Gregorian Calendar was enacted by decree of the Church, with October 4th being followed the next day by October 15th. Moreover, Pope Gregory XIII, for whom the new calendar was eponymously named, added the proviso that Leap Years divisible by 100 likewise had to be divisible by 400. In other words, while 1600 and 2000 are Leap Years, the years 1700, 1800, even 1900 are not.
Naturally, widespread adoption of the Gregorian Calendar was rather slow because many, particularly in Protestant countries, were skeptical about the new calendar. There were concerns that the new calendar was merely a plot to have Protestants return to the ways of the Catholic Church.
Indeed, Britain and its colonies did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1752. This explains why some history books provide different dates, or dual dating, for certain events that took place, based on whether they were documented via the Julian Calendar or the Gregorian Calendar.
But why are there fewer days in the month of February compared to the other months of the year? Julius Caesar had a month named for him, July. And, because he was Emperor, he wanted to have 31 days to his month. When his successor, Augustus Caesar came to power, he, too, had a month named for him, August. He likewise wanted 31 days to his month as well. Thus, the month of February had to give up another of its days to an Emperor’s eponymous month.
Interestingly enough, Leap Day, or February 29th, has an unusual matrimonial tradition associated with it. Legend says that around the 5th Century, Irish nun St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick that there were times when women ended up waiting too long for proposals from suitors. The kind-hearted St. Patrick thus made February 29th a day when women can have the chance to propose to men.
There’s also the tale that the tradition of women proposing is based on the history of when English law did not officially recognize Leap Day. According to this theory, because Leap Day had no legal status, it was consequently acceptable for women to break convention by proposing to men.
In some Scandinavian countries, men who turned down proposals had to pay penalties. For those in Denmark, the man had to give at minimum 12 pairs of gloves to the female whose proposal he had rejected. For those in Finland, the man had to give the female enough fabric for her dream skirt.
Then, too, the idea of the Leap Birthday has always been a point of curiosity, especially since the chances of having it are one in 1,461. Folks born on February 29th are called “Leaplings” or “Leapers.” It is estimated that approximately five million people worldwide are Leaplings.
The Guinness Book of World Records even has a section designated for Leapling records. For instance, Norway’s Henriksen family has three children all born on Leap Day: Heidi was born in 1960, Olav in 1964, and Lief-Martin in 1968. And, for the record of the Most Generations in a Family Born on a Leap Day, Britain’s Keogh family has three consecutive generations: Peter Anthony was born in 1940, his son Peter Eric in 1964, and his granddaughter Bethany in 1996.
Finally, there’s been all manner of predictions on whether or not Leap Day is a day of doom or a day of propitious fortune. Fortune Magazine says that this year’s Leap Day, February 29th, 2016, is “only the 18th time in the history of the S&P 500 that February 29 has fallen on a day that the market is open.” The publication goes on to say that Leap Day, in general, has not been good to stocks. Nevertheless, a Leap Year has always been wonderful for stock performance, simply because Leap Years happen to coincide with American presidential election years as well as the Summer Olympics. So, while Leap Day might not be promising in terms of stocks, there’s still optimism about the rest of the year being on the upturn.
Have yourself a Happy Leap Day this February 29th!