Leap Year Day

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A leaping frog has come to represent February 29th, Leap Day; art by Vetre, 21st century

The concept of Leap Year originated in ancient Egypt, around 2,300 BCE. Egyptians observed the annual flooding of the Nile River, which coincided with the star Sirius rising in the eastern sky. This astronomical event marked the beginning of their New Year. However, they noticed a slight discrepancy -- the solar year, defined by the Earth's revolution around the Sun, was about six hours longer than their 365-day calendar. To maintain alignment with the stars and the natural cycle of the Nile, they incorporated an extra day every four years This concept was later adopted and refined by the Romans. Julius Caesar, in 46 BCE, implemented the Julian calendar, which established the framework for our modern calendar. It designated February 24th as the Leap Day, to account for the lost quarter-day each year. This system remained in place for centuries, despite minor inaccuracies, until further adjustments were introduced in 1582 CE with the Gregorian calendar. The current formula for calculating a Leap Day is first to calculate if the year is a Leap Year. The years are numbered, and any number exactly divisible by four is a potential Leap Lear, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, which are not Leap Years, but of these centurial years, those that are exactly divisible by 400 are placed back into the category of Leap Years. Once it is determined that a given year is a Leap Year, an extra day is added to the calendar at February 29th, and this is called the Leap Year Day or, in modern times, the Leap Day. Interestingly, although the day is thought by many to represent a jump or leap ahead, it is actually a 24 hour pause in the calendar or a slow down in the regular marking of time.

People celebrating Leap Day by leaping about while cheering; photo by Yanlev, 21st century

The social implications of Leap Year have varied by region and culture. In ancient Rome, Leap Years were believed to be times of general bad luck and misfortune. Marriages were often discouraged and public events were postponed during these years. In Greece, Leap Year marriages are avoided because it is believed that they are likely to end in bad luck or a break-up. This negative perception persisted in some European cultures for centuries and it can still be found to the present time, especially among farmers who believe that a Leap Year augurs poor harvests. In Germany, for example, the rhyming mnemonic "Schaltjahr ist Kaltjahrā€¯ ("Leap Year is Cold Year") warns of bad weather for crops during the year in which the calendar must be adjusted.

In contrast to the somewhat gloomy associations with the Leap Year and bad weather, the actual day of the calendar shift, the Leap Day, is embraced in some cultures as an opportunity to challenge societal norms. Folkloric customs surrounding Leap Day vary by region, but a general theme is one of engaging in sanctioned gender role reversals. In medieval Ireland, women were traditionally allowed to propose marriage to men on this day. This custom, documented in historical records, challenged traditional gender roles and provided women with a rare opportunity to take initiative in courtship. In Celtic culture, Leap Year is associated with an old legend of a woman who complained to Saint Bridget about the bachelors taking too long to propose. Bridget granted women an extra day every four years to take matters into their own hands.

Today, Leap Day celebrations are often lighthearted and humorous. The word "leap" has created associations with leaping frogs, who have come to be the unofficial mascots of the day. People may make a brief celebration of the day by gathering together, holding hands, and leaping into the air while cheering. Images of frogs, leaping people, and the words "February 29" are widely spread through social media on Leap Day. Those born on February 29th, known as "Leaplings," may hold special birthday parties, calculate their supposed "real ages" by dividing their age by the number of Leap Days they have observed during their lifetimes, or participate in Leap Year societies. Social observations of Leap Day are generally upbeat and perhaps trivial, but it remains a unique calendar phenomenon recognized and celebrated in various ways around the globe.


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