For a day that happens only every four years, and in rare cases every eight years, Feb. 29 has a lot going on — everything from science to superstition.
The earth’s yearlong revolution around the sun isn’t tidy: It takes 365.24219 days to complete the circle, leaving us with some spare change that adds up to an extra day almost every four years. Because the earth’s annual revolution is a little short of a quarter of a day, there are rare occasions when there is no leap year. Years that are divisible by 100 but not by four aren’t leap years. The turn of the 21st century — 2000 — was a leap year, but the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 weren’t and there won’t be one in 2100.
Leap year’s origins go back to ancient astronomy. The Egyptians created a 365-day solar calendar, but realized it wasn’t accurate and also maintained a lunar calendar to compensate for the extra time. In 46 B.C., during the Roman emperor Julius Caesar’s reign, an extra day — Feb. 29 — was added to the calendar every four years. Sixteenth-century astronomers refined the calendar to account for the 365.24-day year in the Gregorian calendar still used today.
People born on a leap year are known as leaplings or leapers. Famous leaplings include 16th-century Pope Paul III, composer Gioachino Rossini, bandleader Jimmy Dorsey, singer Dinah Shore, actors Ken Foree and the late Dennis Farina, hockey player Cam Ward and rapper/actor Ja Rule. A fictional celebrity — Superman — was born Feb. 29, according to references in the comic books.
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Feb. 29 is most famously associated with a tradition in which women were allowed to propose marriage on that rare date. The custom is thought to have originated in Ireland, where legend has it that St. Bridget petitioned St. Patrick for a day when women could pop the question. One tradition required men who turned down such proposals to buy the women gloves so they could hide the fact that they had no engagement ring.
Adding an extra day disrupts the rhythms of nature’s cycle, and many old rural superstitions have clouded leap year. “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year,” according to an old Scottish proverb.
“Nothing shall be built, planned, or planted in a leap year; it does not prosper,” according to “Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World.” “The whole vegetable world is affected by the influences of leap year. The peas and beans grow the wrong way in their pods and seeds are set in quite the contrary way to what they are in other years.”
Feb. 29, 1504 was an auspicious date. When the local Indians cut off food provisions to his crew, Christopher Columbus, who knew that there was a lunar eclipse happening Feb. 29, told them that God was unhappy with them for withholding food and would place a sign in the skies, followed by famine and pestilence. “When, then at seven o’clock, the earth was still and the moon appeared red like fire and a dark film came creeping over her face, abject fear seized upon the poor Indians,” wrote John Boyd Thacher in “Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work, His Remains.” The food supplies started flowing again.
The 1940 Academy Awards were handed out on Feb. 29. It was a milestone Oscar year: Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win for her work as supporting actress in “Gone With The Wind.”
Fast forward to leap year 2016. Chevrolet has launched a social media campaign with the Twitter hashtag #DayItForward. They’re urging people to use the extra day to do an unexpected act of kindness — something for someone else that will make their live better or happier, like buying a stranger a cup of coffee.
Ms. Dawn also encourages non-leaplings to seize the extra day and make it meaningful. “It’s everyone’s extra day,” she said. “Do something good with it. Take yourself on a vacation. Take the day off. Volunteer at the school or hospital.
“Use it wisely. Don’t let it just go by and waste it. That’s good advice for any day.”