When I was about 10, I asked a friend how old her little brother was. “One,” she said with a grin. Her brother was clearly older than a toddler, so I was sure she was lying. “He should be four, but he’s only had one birthday,” she finally explained.
Thus was my introduction to Leap Day.
Why Leap Day exists
Leap Day came about because the time it takes for the earth to travel around the sun does not compute to a whole number of days (the amount of time it takes the earth to do an entire turn on its axis). Technically, there are 365.2422 days in a year, not 365. While that detail sounds unimportant, after centuries the extra fraction adds up.
By 46 B.C., the calendar was off by a few months, so Julius Caesar decided to make the calendar year 365.25 days long. Every four years, one day was added to February to make up for the fraction of a day left over from each year.
Voilà!. Problem solved — almost.
Remember the number of days in a year? 365.2422. That number is not exactly 365.25, so by adding an extra day every four years, leap years are actually too long by about 11 minutes.
Again, it may sound like an unimportant detail, but by the time Pope Gregory was in power 1,500 years after Caesar, calendars were off by 10 days.
Pope Gregory knew that Caesar’s calendar fix was almost good enough. It only needed to be tweaked, not overhauled. So he decided to keep the Julian calendar with one little change: If a century year (1600, 1700, 1800, etc.) was not divisible by four, it would not be a leap year. For example, 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was.
It’s a lot of math, which is especially impressive given how long ago scientists and mathematicians were computing all of these numbers for their popes and emperors. But the gist of it is that we should be good for now. As it turns out, even this system is off by 26 seconds, so in 3,000 years the calendar will be off by one day. We’ll let future generations figure that one out.
Leap Day trivia
Leap Day has been around for centuries, so there are a number of stories, traditions and trivia around this special day.
- Like my friend’s brother, Leap Day babies (“Leapers”) can tease others about their real age vs. their technical age. While that sounds fun, there are drawbacks to having this special birthday. Some online forms or government websites don’t recognize February 29 as a valid birthday, and Leapers can’t renew their driver’s licenses on their exact 21st birthday – they have to pick February 28 or March 1.
- In Irish tradition, women can propose marriage to men on Leap Day
- Anthony, Texas is the self-proclaimed Leap Year Capital of the World, celebrating with parties and a parade
- The Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies once had a membership of over 11,000 Leapers
- A European family holds the Guinness record for having three generations with Leap Day birthdays, and a family in Utah made the news with three siblings born on three consecutive Leap Days
What’s the point?
What’s the big deal about Leap Day?
For the most part, aside from keeping our calendars on track, Leap Day is just a fun, quirky holiday. But there are some takeaways we can remember.
Leap Day reminds us that our God is a creative God. He doesn’t fit in a neat little box, and neither does the world He created. Not only did He create an earth that spins at an angle on its axis and moves around a giant fireball, but He keeps it moving consistently and even predictably, giving us the ability to learn about this beautiful world and calculate its movements.
Second, Leap Day gives us a fun day to enjoy, reminding us that every day — extra or not — is a gift from God.
So have fun! Here are some ideas to celebrate:
- Hold a leapfrog contest
- Taste frog legs (not sure where you’ll find those, but let me know if you try them)
- Calculate your age in leap years (I’d be 7) and do something you enjoyed when you were that age
- If you have a friend with a Leap Day birthday, celebrate with them
- Make a time capsule to open next Leap Day
Leap Day only comes once every four years (most of the time), so don’t miss it!
Copyright 2020 Lauren Dunn. All rights reserved.