One solar year (that is, the amount of time it takes our planet to accomplish one full rotation about the sun) takes roughly 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. That extra five-or-so hours nobody likes to talk about are precisely why we have leap years, the 366-day years that occur every four years, encourage women to propose to men, and make birthdays very confusing for 1/1,461th of the population. Here are seven reasons Leap Day is even more special than you think.
1. The Rule: Leap Day Happens Every Four Years Unless It Doesn’t
The point of leap years is to help adjust our Gregorian calendar (aka, the 365-day calendar you can find on your desk or phone) to the solar calendar, and make sure we celebrate solar events like the spring and autumn equinoxes with some regularity every year. Even adding an extra day to February every four years doesn’t quite do the trick, which is why scientists sometimes call for a Leap Second like they did last year on June 30 at 11:59:60 pm.
How do you remember if it’s a leap year? Simple: If the last two digits of the year are divisible by four (e.g. 2016, 2020, 2024…) then it’s a leap year. Century years are the exception to this rule. They must be divisible by 400 to be leap years—so, 2000 and 2400 are leap years, but 2100 will not be one. As a bonus, U.S. leap years almost always coincide with election years, meaning candidates get a free day of campaigning, and we get a free day of tweeting about how much we hate them.
2. What’s Crazier than February 29th? A Woman Proposing to a Man, Says History
You’re not the only one who thinks Leap years are silly. After Pope Gregory XIII instituted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, the idea of adding February 29th every four years seemed so ridiculous that a British play joked it was a day when women should trade their dresses for “breeches” and act like men. The play was meant as satire, but some early feminists must have been inspired; by the 1700s, women were using Leap Day to propose to the men in their lives. The tradition—now called Bachelor’s Day or Sadie Hawkins Day—peaked in the early 1900s and continues today in the UK, where some retailers even offer discount packages to women popping the question.
3. What do Ja Rule and Gioachino Rossini Have in Common?
They are both musicians extraordinaire (Rossini composed The Barber of Seville; Ja Rule charted with a song called “Thug Lovin,” among others)—but more to the point, they were both born on February 29th.
The odds of being born on February 29th are 1 in 1,461, which makes it particularly rare for one leapling, as they are called, to meet another.
Rarer still: The possibility that three children in the same family would be born on three consecutive Leap Days, but that’s exactly what happened with the Henriksen family of Norway. Heidi Henriksen was born on 2/29/1960, her brother Olav four years later on 2/29/64, and baby Leif-Martin four years after that on 2/29/68. According to many government agencies, Heidi, Olav, and Ja Rule would not legally be considered older until March 1st on non-leap years, but this year, we can officially say, “Happy Actual Birthday, leaplings!”
4. Only Swedes and Hobbits Celebrate February 30th
February 30th? This even rarer date occurred in Sweden and Finland in 1712, when they added an extra Leap Day to February to help catch up their outdated Julian calendar with the new Gregorian calendar. There is, however, one race of people who celebrates February 30th every year: Hobbits. The wee folk of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings universe observe twelve 30-day months every year—including Solmath (translated in the text to February).
5. There is an Official Leap Day Cocktail
And it’s called… The Leap Day Cocktail! This colorful cousin of the martini was invented by pioneering bartender Harry Craddock at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1928. According to the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, “it is said to have been responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail ever mixed” (see: Sadie Hawkins Day above). Whether or not you’re in the market for a freshly soused spouse, you can make your own Leap Day cocktail with Craddock’s original recipe:
1 dash lemon juice
1/6 Grand Marnier
1/6 sweet vermouth
Shake, serve, garnish with a lemon peel, and enjoy the flood of bittersweet flavors. It’s like a marriage, in your mouth!
6. Not Thirsty? Celebrate Leap Day with Travel Deals and a Rare French Magazine
How does one celebrate a holiday that’s not really a holiday? By shopping, obviously. Many businesses observe the rarity of Leap Day by offering massive deals—as JetBlue did with their one-way $29 fare promotion (which has, tragically, ended). Take a minute to check in with any restaurants, hotels, or cruise lines you’ve been curious about; chances are, they have a promotion running. And if your travels take you to France, pick up a copy of the rare La Bougie du Sapeur, a French parody newspaper only published once every four years on Leap Day. Newsstand copies sell for four euro apiece, but generous investors can buy a lifetime subscription—only 100 euro per century.
7. Is February 29th Good Luck or Bad Luck? Depends on Who You Ask
According to an old Scottish aphorism, “leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.” The superstition that Leap Days are particularly lucky or unlucky has been debated through history and across cultures, and there’s still no clear winner. For one thing, it’s bad luck if you’re a prisoner on a one-year sentence that spans a Leap Day. Also, bad news if you work on a fixed annual salary; no extra pay for that extra day. On the other hand Leap Day is great luck if you’re on a fixed monthly rent (one free day of living!), or if you’re Hattie McDaniel, in which case February 29, 1940 is the day you became the first African American to win an Oscar for your role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind.
Will February 29th, 2016 be lucky or unlucky? You’ll just have to live through it and see.