My friend Sara will celebrate her 6th birthday this year. She was born on February 29, 1996, and will soon become a women’s health nurse practitioner in Nashville. Her 6th birthday!? Sara is one of approximately 4.1 million people around the globe born on the extra day of a leap year: the 366-day years that occur basically but not exactly every four years (more on this below). However, this peculiar occurrence is more than just an extra day on the calendar. Let’s break down what a leap year actually is and wow you with some quirky facts and traditions.

The History of Leap Year

Leap years keep our calendar on track. One solar year — the amount of time it takes our planet to circle the sun — takes roughly 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds. Those extra five-or-so hours nobody ever mentions? Those are why we have leap years. We rely on a Gregorian calendar with only 365 days, so if we didn’t add an extra day to our shortest month about every four years, we would lose almost six hours every year. After a century, our calendar would be off by 24 days.

What some don’t realize is when Julius Caesar introduced the first leap year around 46 B.C., he overcorrected. His rule — any year evenly divisible by four — created too many leap years. The math wasn’t tweaked adequately until more than 1,500 years later. Now, there’s a leap year every year that is divisible by four, except for years that are both divisible by 100 and not divisible by 400. The added rule about centuries (versus just every four years) was an additional fix to make up for Julius Caesar’s overcorrection. Here’s an example: 2020 is a leap year, 2024 is a leap year, but once we arrive at 2100, we skip that leap year because 2100 is divisible by 100 and not by 400. The next leap year will be in 2104.

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What You Haven’t Considered About February 29 Birthdays

People born on a leap year day — February 29 — are often called “leaplings” or “leapers.” But instead of waiting every four years to celebrate their birthdays, most blow out their candles on February 28 or March 1. “I always celebrate on February 28 — my birthday isn’t in March!” my friend Sara says. “I remember being confused that my birthday only came once every four years, but in kindergarten, my parents came to my class birthday party and taught everyone about leap day. From then on, I felt pretty special. Luckily my parents always made it a big deal.”

I asked her if she’d encountered any other oddities growing up a leap day baby. She responded with a laugh, saying, “Some people would ask me if I had to wait until I was ‘actually’ 16 to get my license.” The DMV allowed it even though she was only “4.” “You do have to wait until March 1 to drink legally and get your license, though,” Sara explains.

While Sara admittedly loves her rare birthday, some leap year day babies are very serious about educating society about this day. Leapyearday.com is a fabulous online resource and society of leap year day enthusiasts. Some of its goals are surprisingly interesting:

THE GOALS OF LEAPYEARDAY DOT COM
  1. To connect with fellow Leap Year Day babies
  2. To stop hospitals from changing the birth date on birth certificates
  3. To get worldwide technology Leapified. No more “invalid date”!
  4. To get the words Leap Year Day capitalized in dictionaries
  5. To get the words “Leap Day” in ink on every February 29 on calendars
  6. To have Leap Year Day celebrated by everyone as everyone’s extra day!

Hospitals changing birth dates sounds just plain illegal, and the word “Leapified” is quite silly, but there is no denying having a personally important day ignored by many could get irksome if you’re the 1 in 1,461 born on February 29.

A Centuries-Old Proposal Tradition

Somewhere buried in Scottish and Irish tradition dating back to the 13th century, according to some, it was decided that on February 29, women could pop the question to their significant other. The tradition supposedly originated from a deal Saint Bridget struck with Saint Patrick. In many European cultures, it was accepted that if the proposal was refused, the man was expected to buy the woman a gown, fur coat or pair of gloves. The legend spread around the world, and many leap year balls and dances popped up as a result. Some were held so women could ask men to dance. Some were specifically for the woman to ask for the man’s hand in marriage.

Centuries later, some women still use this bit of folklore as an impetus proposal — on a February 29 or on any day in a leap year. This is especially true in Ireland, where leap day is also called Bachelor’s Day. In the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, postcards circulated depicting women asking — even begging — the man to marry her. Monmouth University published a database of these postcards, and it’s worth the browse.

1907 postcard about leap year

One example of the many leap year postcards that circulated around 1907. Image: WikiCommons

“Please enter a valid birthday.”

Imagine trying to sign up for a subscription online and the computer says your birthday is invalid. Though most of these bugs are fixed by now, there was once a time when software posed major annoyances to February 29 babies. At one point, YouTube would even shut down your account, assuming you were a bot if you entered February 29. One much more devastating story stars Toys “R” Us — the now-defunct toy store chain that is allegedly making a comeback. In the early 2000s, kids could sign up to receive personalized birthday cards from Geoffrey the Giraffe, the store’s mascot. It sounds like a precious marketing gesture, right? Not when leap day babies were left out of the fun due to a coding issue. “How do you explain to a 5-year-old that they won’t receive a birthday card from Geoffrey this year because the Toys “R” Us computer has no way to recognize their birthday?” asked Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies co-founder Raenell Dawn in a 2008 statement. They fixed it quickly, don’t worry.

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Leap Year Celebrations and Community

Speaking of Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies, yes, this group does exist, and it’s amazing and part of the aforementioned website leapyearday.com. They have more than 10,000 official members and created hilarious merchandise playing on their leap age versus real age. Lots of frog images abound.

Personalized leap year t-shirt

This is an example of a funny personalized leap day shirt by Juliet Kennedy, stylist for J Elizabeth Boutique. Image: Facebook

The twin bordering cities of Anthony, TX, and Anthony, NM, are the self-proclaimed Leap Year Capital of the World, where they produce a spectacular four-day leap year festival topped off with a birthday party for all leap year babies (bring your ID!). It began in 1988 when local leapers Mary Ann Brown and Birdie Lewis proposed the greater Anthony area throw a Worldwide Leap Year Festival on their shared birthday. The festival continues to attract leap day babies from across the globe and interested guests alike with parades, tours, Southwestern dancing and birthday treats each leap year in February. My friend Sara is aware of — but isn’t part of — the Leap Day Society or the festival. I secretly wish I could join both.

Cheers to an extra day to celebrate on February 29!

Sources: New York Times, NASA, Leap Year Day

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