Know It All: Leap Day
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Take the Leap1 of 10
By Julie Fishman
With 2012 comes the gift of an extra day: 24 hours for our calendar to catch up with the sun—and for us to catch up on DVR recordings. While Feb. 29 may feel like your average day, its once-every-four-years status has long linked it to myth and lore. Read on to get the lowdown on this distinctive date's history, as well as how we've turned it into a holiday of sorts over the centuries.
Astronomy Lesson2 of 10
Despite what our elementary teachers told us, a year isn't really 365 days. Our planet actually takes 365 1/4 days to revolve around the sun. These six additional hours each year add up to an extra 24 hours over four years, at which point we add a day to our calendar in order to keep us in sync with the sun. Without leap day, annual events would slowly shift seasons—eventually, we'd be celebrating Christmas in July.
Just One Glitch3 of 10
While the first leap day was likely observed by the Egyptians, Caesar is credited for incorporating a leap year into the Julian calendar in 46 B.C. However, scientists noticed that annual events were still shifting over extended periods of time. While the calculation of 365 1/4 days for the Earth to lap the sun was close, the true figure is actually about 11 minutes short of that, and this tiny miscalculation caused a day of discrepancy every 128 years. Pope Gregory XIII came to the rescue in 1582, ruling that leap year would be skipped three times every four centuries to fix the snag.
Farmers' Fears4 of 10
Though the point of a leap day is to keep our calendar aligned with nature, hundreds of years ago people thought that messing with our months would throw Mother Nature for a loop. Farmers worried that the change would lower crop yields and sicken livestock. In fact, a Scottish saying declared that "leap year was never a good sheep year." Lore also held that leap day babies were unruly and tough to raise. (Maybe we should ask J.Lo—whose twins were born on Feb. 29, 2008—if this adage proves true.)
Baby Talk5 of 10
Speaking of leap day babies, those born on Feb. 29 are called "leaplings" or "leapers." Since their actual date of birth only comes around a quarter of the time, leaplings often celebrate non–leap year birthdays on Feb. 28 or March 1. Legal permissions like getting a driver license or drinking alcohol are granted on whichever day a particular region deems official. Most U.S. states test leaplings' patience by making them wait until the 1st.
Legendary Leapers6 of 10
Rapper Ja Rule and actor Antonio Sabato Jr. are among the roughly 187,000 leaplings in the U.S. and 4 million worldwide. Long-expired leaplings include poet John Byrom, bandleader Jimmy Dorsey and writer Dee Brown. The likelihood of being born on Feb. 29 is roughly 1 in 1,500, and on leap day 2012, approximately 10,000 American babies will enter this exclusive minority.
A Modest Proposal7 of 10
Four hundred years ago, women weren't allowed to propose marriage to men… except on leap day. While the source of this switcheroo isn't 100 percent clear, folklore traces the tradition to fifth-century Ireland, when St. Bridget supposedly complained to St. Patrick that gals were sick of waiting around for their procrastinating men to pop the question. Patrick consented to a leap day role reversal and, by some accounts, also declared that men who declined the proposal would be fined!
Nuptial Notions8 of 10
In Greece, it's considered ill will to get married during a leap year—let alone on a leap day—but this superstition doesn't seem to extend to the U.S., where the number of nuptials performed in New York City on Feb. 29, 2008, was more than double the daily average for that year. Tying the knot on a leap day is ideal for practical couples: An anniversary every four years is easier to remember and saves money.
Twice as Nice9 of 10
In 1999, a rumor spread that the year 2000 would include not only a Feb. 29, but also a Feb. 30. While the millennium theory was merely a hoax, a double leap day actually happened in 18th-century Sweden. After the country attempted to gradually switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in the 1700s (to follow the lead of other European countries), the plan went awry and the decision was temporarily reversed. In order for the Swedes to revert back to the Julian system, they had to add Feb. 29 and 30 to their 1712 calendar.
Leap Day Lit10 of 10
In the 1879 opera The Pirates of Penzance, the character Frederic is apprenticed to a band of pirates until his 21st birthday. When that day arrives, he abandons ship, falls in love and plans to marry. That is, until the pirates realize that Frederic was born on Feb. 29, meaning his contract does not officially end until the 21st time that date occurs—when he'll be in his 80s. He's forced to leave his fiancé and return to a soggy life at sea.
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