The Oft-Misunderstood Leap Day Explained


(Photo: Marvin Samuel Tolentino Pineda/Getty Images)

Kendall Claar, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Having been born on February 28, it is absolutely inevitable, when come my birthday, that someone will say, “Wow, you’re lucky that you weren’t born on the 29th!” This has basically become the equivalent of a dad joke. Typically I just laugh and go along with it, but the truth is, the year I was born wasn’t a leap year. If I had been born a day later, it would have been March 1, not February 29. And don’t even get me started on the people who think the 28th is leap day. This made me realize how little people know about leap years and leap days in general.

A leap year is simply a calendar year that contains an additional day added to keep the calendar year synchronized with the astronomical year. As Earth’s astronomical revolution (an entire revolution around the sun constitutes a single year) does not occur in a whole number of days, calendar years will begin to drift in comparison to astronomical years if not corrected. By inserting an additional day into the calendar year, this drift can be corrected. 

Leap day, which occurs on February 29, is the day added into Earth’s calendar year to correct this drift. However, this extra day is inserted into the calendar only every four years. Since Earth’s true astronomical revolution is 365 days and six hours, an additional 24 hours accumulates every four years, thus explaining why a leap day only occurs every four years.

Those born on February 29 may be called a “leapling,” a “leaper,” or a “leap-year baby.” In non-leap years, those born on February 29 may celebrate their birthdays on February 28 or March 1. The legal birthdate of those born on leap day varies by country. For example, in New Zealand, the official birthdate for leap-year babies is February 28 (only in non-leap years of course). However, in the United Kingdom, when leaplings turn 18, their legal birthday is considered to be on March 1. In the United States, there is no legal precedent for either date.

Now here’s the interesting part: the folk traditions associated with February 29. In Ireland, February 29 is not only leap day, but Bachelor’s Day. Tradition states that on February 29 women are allowed to propose marriage to a man (this of course was created was the patriarchy was still a thing). However, if a man refuses this proposal, he must buy the women who proposed twelve pairs of gloves, so that she is able to hide the shame of not having an engagement ring. Some legends suggest that this tradition originated from a deal struck by Saint Bridget with Saint Patrick (both traditionally Irish saints) that allowed women to propose to men – every four years, that is. In fact, this tradition is used as the premise in the wonderfully sweet rom-com Leap Year, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.

There are some other traditions and bits of folklore regarding leap years and leaps days as well. For example, in Scotland, it’s considered unlucky to be born on a leap day. In Greece, it’s considered unlucky to get married during a leap year, and especially so on leap days. And of all the traditions and folklore that I’ve read about so far, the funniest has to be the tradition of those living in Aurora, Illinois. On February 29, single women are deputized and are allowed to arrest single men, who are then subject to a four dollar fine. 

In conclusion, it sounds like I either need to move to Illinois or Ireland. Thank you for reading this article in which I explained the relatively simple, but apparently really difficult to understand, concept of leap years and leaps day. And for the last time, no, my birthday is not on a leap day.