Celebrating Leap Year
by Sherry Kyle
Every four years we are given a special gift—an extra day in February. For the approximately 4 million people around the world born on February 29, it feels like an extra bonus to be able to celebrate on the actual day of their birth. But the question remains: are leap years necessary?
The answer is “YES!”
The main purpose of adding an extra day to February every four years is to line up the solar calendar with the Gregorian calendar—or the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun, which is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds.
It may not seem like a big deal to welcome in the new year five hours before the earth has fully revolved around the sun, but over time it really adds up. By the time four years have rolled around, our calendar is about a day behind where it should be to reflect the earth’s location in its journey around the sun. If we didn’t add the extra day in February every four years, eventually we’d be celebrating Christmas in July! Now that would be strange.
But why is leap year in February?
Back in the first century BC, Julius Caesar and his team of astronomers took note that their 355-day Roman calendar was off with the seasons. After some calculations, Caesar and one of his astronomers came up with a 365-day calendar, adding an extra day every four years to the last month of the year, which was February. This is known as the Julian calendar.
But something still wasn’t right.
By the 16th century, the calendar and the seasons were off by 11 days. So in March 1582, Pope Gregory XII and a team of astronomers jumped the calendar ahead 11 days from March 11 to March 22 and formulated a new calendar. The Pope and his astronomers discovered that the Julian calendar was 11 minutes too long. To help with this discrepancy, they created a new rule: if the century year could be divisible by 400, then it could be a leap year. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not leap years, while the years 1600 and 2000 were. The Gregorian calendar was formed and is still being used today.
So now it’s perfect, right? Not so fast!
Although the Gregorian calendar put the calendar year extremely close to the solar year, it’s still doesn’t line up perfectly. However, the slight difference will take about 3,000 years to add up to an extra day, so astronomers have a bit of time to figure that one out.
Now that you know a bit of history about leap year, here are some other fun leap year facts:
- Leap months in other countries: Every three years a whole leap month is added to the Chinese calendar. The Ethiopian calendar consists of 13 months, where the first 12 months have 30 days each. The 13th month has 5 days in a common year and 6 days in a leap year. It is a solar calendar, based on the solar (tropical) year.
- Leap year traditions: It’s acceptable for a woman to propose to a man on February 29. This tradition began in fifth century Ireland because St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait for men to propose marriage. Patrick then gave women one day to propose.
- Leap year babies: The odds of being born on a leap year are 1 in 1500. People born on leap day are often called “leaplings” or “leapers.” Most of them celebrate their birthday on February 28th or March 1st on non-leap years.
- Leap year siblings: Two women have given birth to three leap day babies, according to the New York Daily News. The Henricksen family from Norway had their children on leap days in 1960, 1964, and 1968. The Estes family from Utah tied that record. Their children were born on leap days in 2004, 2008, and 2012.
- Leap year capital: The twin cities of Anthony, Texas and Anthony, New Mexico are the self-proclaimed “Leap Year Capital of the World.” There is a four-day leap year festival each leap year with a huge birthday party for all leap year babies.
- Leap year movie: The 2010 romantic comedy, Leap Year, stars Amy Adams and Matthew Goode about a woman who travels to Ireland to propose to her boyfriend on leap day.
- Leap years in history: There are many interesting leap days in history, including: when Benjamin Franklin proved that lightning is electricity (1752), gold was discovered in California (1848), George Armstrong Custer fought the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876), and the sinking of the Titanic (1912).
- Leap year events: US Presidential elections and Summer Olympic Games are both held every four years and occur during leap years.
- Leap year record: James Milne Wilson, the eighth premier of Tasmania, was born on a leap day and died on a leap day in the 1800s, according to the World Heritage Encyclopedia.
- Leap year mascot: The frog, of course!
February 29, 2020 is right around the corner. Enjoy the extra day. After all, leap year only comes around every four years.
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