Stuff You Probably Didn't Know About Leap Day
For most Americans, leap day comes and goes without much fanfare. Sure, it’s great for a romantic comedy plot - but how do you celebrate an extra Monday? And how are you supposed to handle the birthday situation?
We looked further into leap day to answer those questions and more.
How Often Do We Have A Leap Day?
Leap day doesn’t actually happen every four years. That’s the basic formula Julius Caesar put into effect in 45 BC, but Pope Gregory (of the, you’ve got it, Gregorian Calendar) made reforms in 1582, because the calendar had fallen off track by about ten days. The new system ensured that the Spring Equinox lands around March 21st every year.
So, technically, a leap year is every year that is evenly divisible by 4 EXCEPT if that year is divisible by 100 but not 400. Keep this in mind, it’s excellent party banter.
According to Gregorian rules, only 1 in 4 century years is a leap year — the rarity of 2000’s leap day went largely unnoticed— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) February 29, 2016
Superstitions and Traditions
Aside from the importance it plays in making sure the Spring Equinox actually falls in spring, leap day is associated with many traditions and superstitions.
In Great Britain - where leap day wasn’t officially recognized until 1752 - leap day is traditionally the one day where a woman can propose to a man. That tradition, it's believed, became the basis for the United States’ Sadie Hawkins Day, though Sadie Hawkins Day is traditionally celebrated in November.
On the other hand, in Greece there is still a widespread superstition about getting married during a leap year. As many as 1 in 5 Greek couples postpones their marriage to avoid holding their wedding during a leap year.
Leaplings: A Blessing and a Curse
For one population, all that superstition is beside the point - they’ve been living with the logistics of leap day since the day were born. Leap day babies, otherwise known as leaplings, are a rare breed.
The odds of being born on a leap year day is 1 out of 1461 so that’s about 684 out of a million people.
That’s roughly five million people, according to Raenell Dawn, a co-founder of the Honor Society for Leap Year Day Babies. What exactly is that?
Ok, so the honor society of leap year day babies is an internet birthday club, worldwide. And what we provide is a forum for people born on February 29 to interact with each other if they like.
The Honor society was founded in 1996 and has over 11 thousand members, who all celebrate their birthdays on the same, very special day.
For those born on a leap day, things like birthday celebrations can get complicated, and asking how old they are can be a very sensitive question. So what is the protocol?
Here’s the key: someone turning 24 years old can say I’m six. When you say I’m six years old, that’s clearly not the case. When you say I’m six, that’s actually the truth, because I’ve only had six birthdays on the date I was born.
Aside from the confusion over age and birthdays, there’s another, harder question to answer: what happens when your birthday registers as incorrect, or your birth certificate isn’t accurate? Plenty of leaplings do run into legal issues over having been born on a day that doesn’t always exist.
There are so many doctors and nurses that offer parents the opportunity to change the date of their baby’s birth. They can put February 28 or March 1, if the parent chooses. Oftentimes, the parents will try to talk the doctor or nurse into changing the date, which is completely illegal.
The birth certificate is the tip of the iceberg - leaplings have wrong dates on driver’s licenses, mismatched official documentation, and the big one: an inability to be recognized when filling out online forms.
Aside from the sometimes-solution of plugging in the year first on online forms, in hopes that it will recognize it as a leap year, there’s not a whole lot of practical advice for dealing with the challenges leaplings face from a world that just doesn’t understand their struggle.
The sooner we accept the fact that we have this extra day every four years in order to keep everything happening in the same season every year, then it sure should make life a lot easier for those of us born on that day.
Maybe it’s not that people don’t want to accept leap day, but that we just sort of...forget about it the other three years.