One giant leap
As if by magic, once every four years at the end of February an extra day appears on the calendar. Known as Leap Day, February 29 has a long and storied past that has everything to do with Julius Caesar’s need to keep things tidy.
Caesar, who is considered the “father” of leap year, was bothered by the fact that the Roman calendar system was based on a total of 355 days in a year while the solar year – the time it takes the Earth to make one complete orbit around the sun – is a full 10 ¼ days shorter than that.1 This difference meant that seasons were getting a little mixed up and eventually not matching with the calendar at all.
After consulting with astronomers, in 46 B.C. Caesar decided to add one extra day every four years to make up for the difference in the two calendars and keep everything nice and neat. At the same time he took the opportunity to change the name of one of the months from Quintillis to July.2 It’s no accident that it’s a play on his own name, but given that our seasons are still always consistent more than 2000 years later, it’s probably fair to give credit where its due.
Pope Gregory XIII did have to make a few tweaks to the system in 1582 to account for the fact that the length of a solar year is actually 11 minutes short of 365 ¼ days. After switching the vernal equinox to March 21 from March 11 we were left with the calendar system most of us use today.3
Humans love folklore and having a reason to celebrate, and an extra day every four years is as good as any! Over the centuries there have been all sorts of charming – and some not so charming – traditions associated with Leap Year:
- In Ireland, tradition has it that leap day is the only day of the year that a woman can propose to a man. In other European countries, men are expected to pay a penalty if they refuse a woman’s proposal. They must buy her twelve pairs of gloves so she has enough of them to hide the shame of not wearing an engagement ring.4
- The very first warrants were issued in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts on February 29, 1692.5
- Many Greeks still believe that marrying during a leap year is bad luck, so as many as one out of every five Greek couples will leap over leap year and marry during the following year. 6
Other than asking a man to marry you, there really aren’t any specific ways people celebrate leap year these days, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun on this rare day every four years.
PTO Today has some great ideas for making it a day to remember:
- Leap into service. Make February 29 all about doing for others by volunteering your time. You might even decide to organize a Foresters Care Package activity for friends, family and other members.
- Leap into spring. Start your spring cleaning, buy some spring bulbs to put on a windowsill, or dig out your spring décor. Sure, spring isn’t for another couple of weeks, but why not make an exception on this rare day and start celebrating early.
- Leap into action. The weather may be starting to warm up where you are – or maybe it’s already balmy – so take the opportunity to start getting active in the great outdoors. Take a long walk, visit a local park, or start to clean up your yard in preparation for the coming spring.
Whatever you decide to do and however you opt to celebrate, enjoy the “extra” day on February 29!
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