A leap year, where an extra day is added to the end of February every four years, is down to the Gregorian calendar’s disparity with the solar system.
A complete orbit of the earth around the sun takes exactly 365.2422 days to complete, but the Gregorian calendar uses 365 days.
So leap seconds – and leap years – are added as means of keeping our clocks (and calendars) in sync with the Earth and its seasons.
Julius Caesar vs Pope Gregory
The Roman calendar used to have 355 days with an extra 22-day month every two years until Julius Caesar became emperor in the 1st Century and ordered his Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to devise something better.
Sosigenes decided on a 365-day year with an extra day every four years to incorportate the extra hours, and so February 29th was born.
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar, featured here in a self-decreed minted coin, created a calendar system that added one leap day every four years.
The system was tweaked, however, about 500 years later.
As an earth year is not exactly 365.25 days long Pope Gregory XIII’s astronomers decided to lose three days every 400 years when they introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582.
The maths has worked ever since but the system will need to be rethought in about 10,000 years’ time. Perhaps mankind’s robot overlords will think of something.
Why does the extra day fall in February?
All the other months in the Julian calendar have 30 or 31 days, but February lost out to the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.
Under his predecessor Julius Caesar, Feb had 30 days and the month named after him – July – had 31. August had only 29 days.
When Caesar Augustus became Emperor he added two days to ‘his’ month to make August the same as July.
So February lost out to August in the battle of the extra days.
Why does the woman propose on a leap year?
Leap years are also marked as a time for women to propose to men.
One theory is that the custom dates back to the 5th Century, when, legend has it, an Irish nun called St Bridget complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. St Patrick then supposedly gave women the chance to ask the question every four years.
The tradition is not thought to have become commonplace until the 19th Century.
Then there’s the theory that Queen Margaret of Scotland was behind the fabled Scottish law of 1288. The law allowed unmarried women the freedom to propose during a leap year, and the man who refused was handed a fine.
The truth behind this tale is dubious at best – after all Queen Margaret was just eight years old when she died and scholars have been unable to find a record of the law.
Others argue that the tradition of women proposing on this day goes back to the times when the leap year day was not recognised by English law. Under this theory, if the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with the convention of a man proposing.
Women either have to wear breeches or a scarlet petticoat to pop the question, according to tradition.
In Denmark, if a man turns down a proposal they must give the woman 12 pairs of gloves and in Finland the penalty is fabric for a skirt.
According to research conducted by Beefeater, 20 per cent of women said they would like to propose to their partner. Despite the fact that almost a third of women said they would be worried about their partner’s reaction. However, more than half of men (59 per cent) would love their girlfriends to get down on one knee.
To that end, the chain has created a ‘Leap Year Proposal Package’ should you wish to pop the question at one of its establishments.
Research from The Stag Company yielded similar results, with more than half of men saying they would accept a propsal from their girlfriend, and the majority asserting that they would like to be given a ring by their partner.
Yet just 15 per cent of women said they would consider proposing.
Although there’s a theory that most unmarried men would love for their female partners to propose, recent research suggests Leap Year-inspired betrothals are doomed to failure.
Technically, a leap year isn’t every four years
The year 2000 was a leap year, but the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not.
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 the fact that an extra day every four years is too much of a correction.
What if you’re born on February 29?
The chances of having a leap birthday are one in 1,461. People who are born on February 29 are referred to as “leaplings”, or “leapers”. In non-leap years, many leaplings choose to celebrate their birthday on either February 28 or March 1, while purists stick to February 29 for the occasion.
Some suggest those born before midday on February 29 should celebrate their birthdays on February 28, while those born in the afternoon and evening of the 28th should celebrate their special day on March 1 (St David’s Day).
About 4.1 million people around the world have been born on the 29th.
Pisces is the zodiac sign of a person born on February 29, and amethyst is the birthstone for this month.
Are you celebrating a birthday on February 29th? Majestic Wine is offering a free bottle of champagne (to those who buy six bottles).
(We gather the offer is open to those over 18 and not just 72-year-olds as you might imagine…)