If it wasn’t for the incredible intelligence and inquiring minds of the Ancient Egyptians, our world today may well be a very different place. It was their fascination with the heavens and Earth’s cyclical changes that lead to the discovery their manmade calendar did not match the natural seasonal calendar i.e. the time it took Earth to orbit the sun and if adjustments were not made, important occasions that had a specific date on the calendar would eventually fall at a time that was astronomically irrelevant.
The Ancient Egyptian calendar was made up of 12 months, each month being 30 days long therefore each year had 360 days. The result was that stellar events drifted around their calendar!
It was several thousand years later c. 46BC that Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar that pulled in and scattered an extra 10 days to try and synchronize with the Earth’s orbit.
Whilst the Julian calendar continues to be used to this day by some countries, it was Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the Gregorian calendar toward the end of the 16th century, that most of the western world uses now. (Great Britain adopted it in 1752 and Communist Russia in 1918. However, Greece still use the, albeit revised, Julian calendar).
Pope Gregory designed the calendar so that Easter Day remained as close as possible to the vernal (spring) equinox which in turn stayed on or close to 21 March.
The Gregorian calendar has 365 days, making it roughly 6 hours shorter than the solar year, so to ensure we keep more or less in line with what Earth is doing, an extra day is added every fourth year.
Thus the ‘Leap Year’ was born. Why ‘leap’? Because the extra day was not recognised as having any legal status and so the extra day was literally ‘leapt’ over.
There is still a minute time disparity under the Gregorian rule but to put it into context, it will be approximately 8,000 years before the system falls just one day behind the astronomical year!
There are additional criteria that a year has to meet in order to become a leap year e.g. the year has to be divisible by 4 (2004, 2008, 2012, etc.) but also, years divisible by 100 must also be divisible by 400; so 1900 was not a leap year but 2000 was! The longest interlude between leap years is eight years.
The Gregorian calendar repeats itself every 400 years so during that time 29 February will fall on a Monday or Wednesday 15 times, then a Friday or Saturday 14 times and a Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday 13 times.
The non leap years are known as ‘common’ years.
(The Chinese and Hebrew calendar is lunisolar and has an extra month added to synchronize with the astronomical year).
Probably one of the greatest leap year conundrums relates to people born on 29 February as their true birthday occurs at most every four years. There is a ‘legal’ option of using either 28 February or 1 March and as the day would normally have fallen on the latter, most people opt for a March birthday.
People born on 29 February (there are around 4 million) are known as a ‘leapling’ or ‘leaper’ (not to be confused with leper i.e. someone who has a serious skin disease).
A few leaper celebrity birthdays include Jimmy Dorsey (1904), singer Dinah Shore (1916), Joss Ackland (1928) and motivational speaker Tony Robbins (1960).
The day has also become synonymous with the one day that the girl can ask the man to marry her and if he rejects her, he has to pay a forfeit ranging from a kiss to a silk gown!
There is great conjecture as to the true history behind this tradition, one such story states it was in 5th century Ireland that St Bridget asked St Patrick to sort out the disparity of women never being allowed to ask a man to marry her. St Patrick’s concession was to allow one occasional day when the girl could propose and he made it 29 February.
There was also allegedly a law passed by Queen Margaret of Scotland in 1288 whereby a fine was levied if a man refused to soften the blow caused by his rejection of the proposal!
Something that may give the girl some Dutch courage or the boy some comfort in his solicitude is London’s Savoy Hotel ‘Leap Year’ Cocktail.
When US citizen Harry Craddock left America during the time of prohibition, he joined the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in 1920 and soon became one of the most famous cocktail barmen of the 1920’s and 30’s. He created his Leap Year Cocktail in 1928:
The Harry Craddock Leap Year Cocktail (1928)
2 oz gin
½ oz grand Marnier
½ oz sweet vermouth
¼ oz lemon juice
Shake all the ingredients with ice then strain into a cocktail glass and serve with a twist of lemon!
So what will you do on 29 February 2012? Remember … act in haste, repent at leisure and always look before you leap!
Whatever you do, enjoy it!