By Loraine Debnam
One of my favourite authors, Sarah Ban Breathnach, says Feb. 29 is a day of grace. She encourages us to seize the moment since it only happens once every four years. As a history buff, I was interested to explore both the science and the myths and legends that accompany this extra day.
The ancient Egyptian astronomers began to understand the place the Earth held in the heavens and added an extra day randomly to make up the difference. But, in the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII introduced his calendar — which is still used in most of the world today. The Earth orbits the sun once every 365 and a quarter days, so an extra day had to be added every four years to keep the calendar year and the seasons in a semblance of synchronization. It was calculated if this was not done, the calendar would be out by nearly a month at the end of every century.
The legends in the United Kingdom can be traced back even farther. In Scotland, in 1288, Queen Margaret decreed Feb. 29 would be an acceptable day for her ladies to propose marriage to the gentlemen of their choice. In Ireland, in the 5th century, St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick it was unfair ladies always had to wait for their love to be the one to ask for their hand in marriage and he decreed it would be satisfactory for women to propose on the leap year date.
This day of gender reversal was a bold initiative and unheard of in polite society. There were a variety of penalties for the man if he refused — pay a fine, a single rose, fabric for a skirt or twelve pairs of gloves (perhaps to cover the finger where no ring was to be seen). In other countries it was deemed inauspicious to marry in a leap year and the day was not considered favourable for planting crops.
Individuals born on this day are known as leaplings and there are over four million of them in the world today. Famous leaplings include Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore and composer Gioachino Rossini.
The chances of having this birthday are one in 1461 (365 x 4 + 1). Astrologers believe these people born under the sign of Pisces are endowed with special status and unusual talents and personalities, which befits their notable birthdate.
A statistic of note comes from Norway, where Karin Henriksen gave birth to all three of her children in consecutive leap years on Feb. 29 — a daughter in 1960, a son in 1964 and another son in 1968. The birthday parties must be quite something.
Along with the summer Olympics and the U.S. presidential elections (which seem to go on for much longer than a year), the city of Anthony in Texas hosts a special carnival on Feb. 29. An enterprising city councillor (a leapling herself) proposed a special celebration to be held in her area. After proceeding through all the correct channels and paperwork, Anthony, Texas was declared the Leap Year Capital of the World in 1988. The huge festival is attended by people from all over the world. One of the most favourite foods offered is frogs’ legs (leaping?).
Fun facts and trivia aside, it’s an extra day before we have to pay the rent and a day of grace to do something nice for someone else.