As 2016 is a Leap Year, Jim Devereux explains the origins of the Leap Year and explains why bachelors, especially, had better have their wits about them…
2016 is a leap year which means that another day is added to February making the winter season just that little bit longer.
So why do we have leap years? Well the main reason is to keep our calendar in alignment with the Earth’s revolutions around the Sun.
It takes the Earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds to circle around the Sun. Now, as our calendar has only 365 days, if we failed to add an extra day every four years we would lose just under six hours from our calendar each year, and each century that would add up to nearly 24 days.
So, without the addition of the extra day every four years, the seasons would move back in the calendar creating confusion as to what season we were actually in, although, debatably, with our weather system that happens anyway. It is, though, reassuring that each year the winter solstice, marking the shortest day and longest night occurs on the same day, December 21st.
Like many sensible inventions, the origins of the Leap Year can at least partly be attributed to the Romans, more specifically Julius Caesar. It was during Caesar’s time that the Julian calendar was introduced but this calendar had only one rule, namely that a Leap Year would occur in any year that could be evenly divided by four.
This calculation had the effect of creating far too many leap years and was remedied by the creation of the modern day, Gregorian calendar, in 1582.
This calendar is named after Pope Gregory X111 who was responsible for introducing it, although it was actually designed by Luigi Lilio, an Italian doctor and astronomer, who died in 1576. Unsurprisingly not all countries adopted the new calendar straight away.
In fact it wasn’t until September 1752 that Great Britain and America introduced the calendar. Confusingly Sweden and Finland had a double leap year in 1712, adding a 30th February to their calendar, meaning for people born on that date that was their one and only official birthday.
The Gregorian calendar set three basic criteria for a Leap Year.
Firstly the year must be capable of being evenly divided by four, secondly the year must be evenly divided by 100, and finally the year must also be evenly divisible by 400.
This means that whilst the year 2000 was a leap year, the years 1800 and 1900 were not, and if you are lucky enough to be around for the next turn of the century you may well be disappointed (or by that time maybe not even care either way) that 2100 will not be a leap year.
Now that’s all the tricky mathematical stuff out of the way what is significant about a Leap Year apart from the additional day in February?
Well for a start, many of the major sporting events such as the UEFA European Football Championship and Summer Olympic Games are always held in Leap Years, as is the United States Presidential election.
Christopher Columbus also made good use of the Leap Year in 1504 when stranded on the island of Jamaica. Columbus and his crew had overstayed their welcome and the local tribes had refused to continue to supply provisions. After consulting his almanac, Columbus realised that a lunar eclipse was due to fall on February 29, so he gathered the tribal chiefs together and informed them that God would paint the moon red as a punishment for their actions (pictured).
When the moon did turn red on 29 February as a result of the eclipse, they hastily agreed to revert to the previous arrangement and the moon slowly reappeared out of the shadow of the sun.
If you are a bachelor and want to remain that way, you are probably better staying in a darkened house on Leap Year Day as traditionally 29th February is also known as Bachelors Day, when women can propose marriage to men. In some countries, if the man refuses the proposal he is obliged to give the woman money or buy her a dress.
One tradition was that a man who spurned the offer of marriage had to buy the woman 12 pairs of gloves so that she was spared the embarrassment of not showing an engagement ring on her hand.
In Scotland it was felt that men deserved a bit of advance warning of these marriage proposals. So Queen Margaret of Scotland actually passed a law in 1288 allowing women to propose marriage on leap-year day only on the proviso that they wore a red petticoat under their skirt to pre-warn their prospective husbands of their intentions.
According to legend, the origins of this practice in Ireland date back to a deal that St Brigid of Kildare struck with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men on one day every four years.
St Brigid was a 5th century nun who championed the cause of women whose suitors were too shy to propose marriage. The custom at this time was that women could make a proposal only once every seven years but St Brigid persuaded St Patrick to reduce that period to one day each Leap Year. Apparently, on obtaining St Patrick’s consent for this change, St Brigid immediately proposed to St Patrick. He refused her offer but in recompense he gave her a silk gown therefore creating the tradition.
If you are a bachelor avoiding women approaching in red petticoats and spending the day in isolation you could do worse than watch the romantic comedy film Leap Year released in 2010 (not a leap year), part of which is set in Ireland. It is quite a convoluted story and to be honest not quite an Oscar candidate. Alternatively, you could celebrate St Oswald’s Day in memory of the Archbishop of York in England who died on 29 February, in 992.
People actually born on 29 February generally choose to celebrate their birthday on either the preceding 28 February or on 1 March although the older you are the more inclined you maybe to observe only your actual birth date every four years. Many countries proscribe a birth date for babies born on Leap Year Day, for example in New Zealand it is 28 February whereas in the UK the official birth date is given as 1 March. Anyone born on 29 February has an open invitation to join the Honour Society of Leap Year Day Babies birthday club. Since the website was launched in 1997 over 10,000 people worldwide have joined the club. One place to consider celebrating your Leap Year Day birthday is in the town of Anthony in Texas, the self-proclaimed ‘Leap Year Capital of the World’. Every Leap Year Day the town hosts a festival and a leap year birthday parade.
As you might appreciate Leap Year Day babies are relatively rare but not in all families; according to the Guinness Book of Records a Utah woman has given birth to babies on 29 February in three successive Leap Years in 2004, 2008 and 2012, an achievement shared with the Henriksen family from Norway woman who had babies on 29 February in 1960, 1964 and 1968.
Other notable Leap Year babies include the English poet Lord Byron, Pope Paul 111 who was born in 1468, Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker Movement in America and the Italian composer, Rossini.
So, as Leap Year Day approaches, have a thought for those people who only get to celebrate their official birthday once every four years.
My humble suggestion, which wouldn’t be popular amongst those celebrants, is that instead of extending winter we move that extra day to summer in July or August when the sun is beating and everyone is on holiday.