For the majority of the population, leap year, and subsequently leap day, isn't given a second thought. But for a tiny sliver of the world called "leaplings," or people who's birthdays fall on February 29, leap day is a big deal. And, as it turns out, there's a lot more to leap day than just an extra day on the calendar or a few extra hours to let the Earth finish its rotation around the sun (more on that later.)
Many cultures celebrate leap day with folk traditions, ranging from ironic, funny and just flat-out bizarre. Some believe leap day is unlucky: In the U.K., it's though that the child will grow up unruly, while in Greece it is unlucky to be married in a leap year. And Scottish farmers believed that humans messing around with the calendar screwed up the natural rhythms of the earth, or more specifically, the raising of crops and livestock. It was said that beans and peas planted during a leap year would "grow the wrong way."
Another leap day tradition, which started in Ireland but has spread to many countries in Europe, is that of "women's privilege." As legend has it, before they were saints, St. Bridget (then just known as Brigid) complained to St. Patrick (Pat) that it was unfair that women had to wait for men to propose, and so Pat declared that every February 29 "impatient" women had the opportunity to ask men to marry them. There's even been a movie, Leap Year (Starring Castle Rock's own Amy Adams) entirely based on this premise.
About 700 years later, in 1288, a five-year-old Queen Margaret supposedly created a law that required any man who refused a leap day proposal to pay fines ranging from a kiss, to one English pound, to a silk gown.
If these real traditions aren't interesting enough for you, take Tina Fey's made-up tradition of Leap Day William. He wears yellow and blue, lives in the Mariana Trench and trades children's tears for candy. Well, here, see for yourself:
Leap day itself is a pretty nifty fix for the scientific problems caused by the fact that the Earth's
rotations revolutions around the Sun aren't completely even, and so we have a few extra hours each rotation that don't fit in our normal 365-day calendar. To compensate for the extra six hours each rotation (or quarter turn of the earth), every four years an extra day is added to the shortest month, February.
This was the solution the Romans came to when forming the Gregorian calendar more than 2,000 years ago. However, many other cultures with lunar-based calendars handle leap years differently: For instance, in the Hebrew calendar, a thirteenth lunar month is added seven times, every nienteen years to the twelve lunar months in its common years to keep its calendar year from drifting through the seasons too rapidly.
The easiest way to remember what years are leap years is to see if the year is divisible by four: For instance, 2012 is divisible evenly by four, so it is a leap year, while 2011 was not evenly divisible by four, so it was a common year. There are some exceptions to this rule, however. Years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400 (Sill with us?). The year 2000 was a leap year, but 1800 was not.
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So go out and enjoy these extra 24 hours by doing some you wouldn't, or don't have the time to, do otherwise.
Because, as Tina Fey (as Liz Lemon) says, "Real living is for March!"