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HomeAt Home & BeyondHappy Leap Year

Happy Leap Year

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Happy Birthday, “Leaplings!” Can you imagine celebrating your real birthday only once every four years? That’s what happens to some five million people around the world who were born on February 29th.

2024 is a leap year, which comes around every four years. We add an extra day (the 29th) to our shortest month, February, just to keep things straight in time. Why do we bother? You see, our Earth orbits around the sun every 365.2421 days. That makes a year 365 days, six hours, and nine minutes long. Without adjustments to our Gregorian calendar of 365 days, those extra hours and minutes really begin to add up. Within 50 days, our seasons of the year would shift out of whack, and no one wants that!

How old is acknowledging a leap day? It goes back to the time of Julius Caesar and the ancient Roman Empire. The Romans had a 10-month calendar based on farming and planting, with an ill-defined extra number of days given to winter. No one cared much if winter was accurate or not. The odd days became divided into two calendar months called January and February.

It’s said that Julius Caesar traveled to Egypt and observed their way of balancing time. He wanted to introduce a new calendar similar to the Egyptian one. You see, Egyptians observed 365 days as a calendar year but added in an extra day every fourth year to account for the additional time of Earth’s orbit around the sun. The extra day was designated to fall in the second month of the year, which is February.

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There are some traditions and folklore surrounding Leap Day. The Irish called it “Bachelor Day” or Ladies Privilege. On this day, a woman can initiate a dance or propose marriage to a man.

There is also a European tradition that if the man refuses the woman’s proposal, he must buy her 12 pairs of gloves! Really? And why 12 pairs? They represent a pair of gloves for each month of the year to hide the embarrassment of not having a wedding ring!

We’ve even had February 30th, believe it or not! Sweden made one up in 1712 to correct an earlier calendar error.

The Soviet Union had a February 30th in 1930 and 1931 while trying to cut seven-day weeks into five-day ones. That didn’t work out so well.

So “Leaplings,” when do you celebrate your birthday on other years? Do you pick February 28th to be early about it or choose March 1st to be a bit late? Either way, you’re a year older and time marches on. Happy Birthday!

“It takes time to agree on time.”
…James A. Barnes, National Bureau of Standards

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