Current Magazine

Leap Year: What It Really Means

Posted on the 29 February 2012 by Periscope @periscopepost
Leap Year: What it really means

Leap year comes but, er, almost every four years. Photocredit: Karen Roe

It’s a Leap Year! Yep, everyone’s favorite little intercalary (or, indeed, bissextile) year shoehorned in to even up the calendar every four years (well, mostly) has come round again. It’s also apparently the only day in the year in which women can propose to men. So watch out, chaps.

Why we need it. Paul Simons in The Times explained why we have one. It actually takes the Earth 365.25 days to whizz round the Sun, which means we need an extra day in the year every four years to keep up with the seasons. If we didn’t, we’d “gradually grow out of step … so that February would be in summer.” There’s a little bit extra, but the “difference is only marginal.” It adds up, though – and this is why the Julian calendar went kaput. After “128 years, the calendar was a whole day out.” So we have the Gregorian calendar, set up in 1582. So leap years don’t actually happen every four years – at the beginning of a century, years divisible by 100 aren’t leap years, but they are if they’re divisible by 400. It’s “more confusing”, but it’s kept us “on track for more than four centuries.” OK, we are out by 26 seconds, but that only means that by 4000 AD we’ll be “one day out.” Adam Goucher, the mathematician, has suggested a rule based on 128 years, meaning we’d be out by 0.2 seconds a year – a “distinct improvement.”

For ever young. It’s not a holiday, said The Daily Telegraph, but there’s “something attractive” about that. It means we keep in pace “with the quiet and unhurried progress of the Earth around the Sun.” Well, “almost so” – apart from the “11 minutes 12 seconds’ difference” – but that will only affect those who reach 2100. “The unevenness of a leap year … is like the unevenness of the human face.” If the year were “symmetrical, it would become icily inhuman.” Sure, you may complain, if you’re born on February 29th, that you don’t get enough presents. But just think “how young having a birthday once every four years” will keep you.

But can you legally drink? Sarah Ebner in The Times ran an article about leap year babies (known as “leapers” or “leaplings”) including Talia Rawling, who’s 8 years old today – but it’s only her second birthday. There are about 50,000 leap year babies in the UK. So what does it feel like? She quoted 20 year old Berhe Tesfayohannes: “It was very strange when I turned 18; we went out to a club and I wasn’t sure if I should legally be drinking or not.” Talia continued: “I would never, ever change the date … It means that when all my friends are old and 80, I will still be young because I will only be 20.”

Fun, but not so factual. It happens every time. Somebody’s got to do it. This time it was The Winnipeg Free Press that provided some leap year “fun facts.” It’s all thanks to Julius Caesar’s astronomer, Sosigenes, who added the extra day – because February is the last day in the Roman calendar. The women proposing to men thing comes, apparently, from St Bridget complaining to St Patrick about the inequality – and so that was Patrick’s handy solution. However, says Periscope, one should think this a little dubious, since the tradition’s only been around since the nineteenth century. Supposedly, as well, if you refuse your lady on a Leap Day, you have to compensate her; this is meant to have been instituted by Queen Margaret of Scotland in 1288. Alas, she was five at the time, and living in Norway, and the oft-cited passage (see below) was even thought suspicious by the same nineteenth century authors who quoted it.

“It is statut and ordainit that during the reine of hir maist blissit Magestie, ilk maiden ladye of baith highe and lowe estair shale hae libertie to bespeak ye man she likes; albiet, gif he refuses to tak her till be his wif, he sall be mulcit in ye sume of ane hundredth poundis or less, as is estait mai be, except and alwais gif he can mak it appear that he is betrothit to ane other woman, then he shall be free,” reads the suspect text.

Ah, just get rid of it. Ruth Rangel in the Metro St Louis Suburban Journal had a different view: bin the 29th altogether. Don’t even number it. Then you’d have “a get-out-of-jail-free card, a day with a blank slate, a day of unordered possibilities, a day wiped clean. How would you spend such a day?”

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog