This Saturday, we gain an extra day on our calendars. Here are some interesting facts, superstitions, and suggestions on how to celebrate your extra 24 hours, along with recollections from leap years past.
The History of the Leap Year
While the Egyptians were among the first to calculate the need for a leap year, the theory wasn’t put into practice until the reign of Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 46 BC.
At that time, the Romans had a 355-day calendar, but in order to keep festivals occurring around the same season each year, a 22- or 23-day leap month was created every second year. Chinese and Hebrew calendars (which are also based on lunar cycles rather than those of the sun) still follow the model of the leap month, which is why they often do not line up with the Gregorian calendar.
Caesar worked with astronomer Sosigenes to revamp the calendar to include 12 months and 365 days. This “Julian Calendar” lined up with Earth’s orbit around the Sun, rather than being based on phases of the moon. Since it takes Earth a little bit more than 365 days (to be precise: 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds) to circle around the Sun, our reckoning of time would slowly but surely drift away from alignment with the seasons. In order to fix this, an extra day every four years brings us much closer to a perfect alignment.
The Julian calendar brought us much closer to a perfect alignment between our calendars and the movements of the planets. However, and to make matters even more complicated, the one extra day every four years is not quite exact enough to make up for the difference. Since the time difference in a revolution around the sun is just a little bit less than 6 hours, we end up with a surplus of 11 minutes each year.
This small discrepancy may not seem like much, but it meant Caesar’s calendar drifted off course by one day every 128 years, and by the 14th century we were off by 10 days. Pope Gregory XIII instituted a revised “Gregorian” calendar in 1582, in which we skip the leap day in years evenly divisible by 100 but not by 400. This brings us close enough to perfect that we shouldn’t have to address the remaining mathematical discrepancies for another 10,000 years, according to experts.
The modern-day Gregorian calendar has been using this model since 1582.
Leap Year Traditions and Superstitions
The leap day is such an anomaly on the calendar that some strange traditions and superstitions have sprung up around it over the years. Here are a few:
There’s a common misconception that Feb. 29 is Sadie Hawkins Day. Although that tradition is actually celebrated in November, Leap Day does hold significance for women thanks to an old Irish tradition called St. Bridget’s Complaint, which granted women permission to propose marriage on that day thanks to a deal brokered between St. Brigid of Kildare and Saint Patrick. While this notion is extremely outdated, some still pay homage by planning a surprise proposal or date for Leap Day.
In several European countries, especially in the upper classes of society, tradition dictates that any man who refuses a woman’s proposal on Feb. 29 has to buy her 12 pairs of gloves. The intention is that the woman can wear the gloves to hide her embarrassment from not having an engagement ring. During the middle ages, there were laws governing this tradition.
There is a Greek superstition that claims couples have bad luck if they marry during a leap year. According to one survey, one in five engaged couples will avoid planning their wedding during a leap year to this day. In Italy, superstition states that since the month of February was associated with the dead in ancient Roman times, extending that month only brings more time to think morbid thoughts, making Leap Day a day of bad luck.
In 1928, Leap Year celebrations at the Savoy Hotel in London featured a Leap Day cocktail created by Harry Craddock. According to the Savoy Cocktail Book, “This cocktail… is said to have been responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed.” The drink is comprised of 2 ounces of gin, ½ ounce Grand Marnier, ½ ounce sweet vermouth and a dash of fresh lemon juice and is made my shaking with ice in a cocktail shaker, straining into a chilled glass and topping with a twisted piece of lemon peel for a garnish.
In 1988 in Anthony, Texas, neighbors and fellow “leaplings” (people born on Feb. 29) Mary Ann Brown and Birdie Lewis approached their town council with the idea of creating a festival to celebrate Leap Day. The town has been celebrating ever since, and it is now a four-day affair complete with music, food and frivolity, and with people traveling from all over the world to celebrate, Anthony is now known by some as the “Leap Year Capital of the World.”
“Leaplings” of Greene County
Searching through our archives we didn’t find much relating to Leap Day, but here are two we did find (in addition to the historical photo on A1):
From the Greene County Record, Feb. 25, 1960
Some 11,000 babies will be born in the United States Feb. 29 – the rarest day on the 1960 calendar. The expected crop of Leap Year Day babies – based on census estimates – will join 118,000 other Americans whose birthday comes only once every four years.
Many may consider this a minor tragedy. The National Geographic Society notes, however, that several famous people have been born on Feb. 29, including Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker sect, and the Italian opera composer, Gioacchino Rossini. At 72, Rossini celebrated what he termed his 18th birthday and facetiously announced that he planned to turn over a new leaf and abandon the frivolities of youth.
From the Greene County Record, March 6, 2014
While most of Central Virginia played a pivotal role in the Civil War, the lesser-known Battle of Stanardsville represented a small-scale conclusion to an aggressive attempt to bring the war to an early close.
The Greene County Historical Society celebrated the town’s only/most prominent Civil War skirmish on its 150th anniversary with a lecture at the Greene County Courthouse Friday evening.
“A once-in-a-lifetime event,” said noted author, historian, keynote speaker and Madison County native, Harold R. Woodward Jr.
Woodward spoke to a packed courthouse in Stanardsville Friday, Feb. 28, to remember the Battle of Stanardsville on its sesquicentennial anniversary.
“This is the closest we can get to celebrating 150 years,” said Greene Historical Society President Jackie Pamenter, “since the battle occurred Feb. 29, 1864—a leap year.”
While the battle had little impact on the Civil War and there isn’t much of a story to tell in terms of the skirmish itself, Woodward spent an hour entertaining the audience by setting the scene of the battle, outlining the key players and identifying the precursors and aftermath.
The Battle of Stanards-ville occurred Feb. 29, 1863, when Custer and the 1,000 men he had left tried to fight their way back through Greene. The Second Virginia had captured and three wounded Custer mentions no casualties.
Kilpatrick and Dahl-gren’s attack was thwarted by the elderly men and boys left to defend the prisoners – and the Union failed to capture Richmond, Woodward said.
“So that’s the reason we commemorate and remember those who fought in the Battle of Stanardsville,” Woodward said. “It wasn’t a big battle – the outcome wasn’t decisive, but it shows what lengths people will go when they fight for a cause in which they believe.”
This year Leap Day lands on a Saturday so there is plenty to do to enjoy it. Here’s just a selection of some local events happening Feb. 29 where you can celebrate your extra day:
- Basic Beaded Jewelry Making Class hosted by the Art Guild of Greene, 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Qute Scraps in Ruckersville.
- “Fair housing that was anything but fair” book discussion at the Greene County Library with urban planner Craig Wilson, 3–4:30 p.m.
- Women’s Dance Cville is hosting a women’s dance from 9 p.m. to midnight at Firefly Restaurant & Game Room, 1304 E. Market St., Charlottesville.
- Leap Year Day with Pale Blue Dot’s Tony LaRocco at Montifalco Vineyard, 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m. at 1800 Fray Road in Ruckersville.
- 9Round Fitness has a special Leap Day workout offered at 1770 Timberwood Blvd, Charlottesville.
- Sunset on Stony Man hosted by River Rock Outfitters. Hike 4 miles along Little Stony Man Cliffs and Stony Man Mountain to enjoy sunset with a guide and some hot cocoa. 1–8 p.m. starting at 215 William Street, Fredericksburg.