Leap Year Day

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Leap Year Day (Leap Day)

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Every four years on February 29
Where Celebrated: British Isles, Europe, United States
Symbols and Customs: Proposals of Marriage


Although a calendar year is thought of as being 365 days long, it actually takes the earth an additional five hours, forty-eight minutes, and forty-five seconds longer than that to complete its trip around the sun. When Julius Caesar initiated his calendar reform in 45 B . C . E ., he tried to accommodate this discrepancy by fixing the solar year at 365 days, six hours-or 365 1/4 days. Every four years, the extra six hours per year added up to a whole day, which was added to February because it was the shortest month.

The calendar year still didn't correspond exactly to the astronomical year, however, and the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the seasons of the year continued to increase-about three days every 400 years. In March of 1582, Pope Gregory XIII abolished the use of the Julian or Old Style calendar and instituted the Gregorian or New Style calendar. The Gregorian calendar subtracted ten days from the month of October so that October 6 was instead October 15. This shift brought the calendar more in line with the seasons. It also created Leap Year Day and established January 1 as the day of the new year throughout the Christian world. Catholic countries, such as Italy, France, Luxembourg, Spain, and Portugal, switched to the new calendar that year. Other European nations, predominantly Protestant or Orthodox, did not. Protestant Germany accepted the change in 1700, Orthodox Russia, in 1706. Great Britain accepted the Gregorian calendar and the New Year on January 1, in 1752. By the twentieth century most of the world had accepted the Gregorian calendar for civic and business purposes.

By instituting the new calendar, Pope Gregory not only canceled ten days but corrected the discrepancy in the length of the year. Pope Gregory decided that from this point on, Leap Year should be omitted in all centenary years, except those that are divisible by 400. Therefore, 1600 was a Leap Year, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not. The Gregorian calendar managed to bring the solar year much closer to the astronomical year, reducing the discrepancy to only twenty-six seconds a year-which won't add up to a full day until 3,323 years have passed.

Why is it called Leap Year? One explanation is that the additional day did not have any legal status in the English courts. February 29 was therefore "leaped over" in the records, and whatever happened on that day was dated February 28.


Proposals of Marriage

Leap Year Day is sometimes referred to as Ladies' Day. There is an old tradition that women can propose marriage to men not only on Leap Day (February 29) but throughout Leap Year. It can be traced back to an ancient Irish legend concerning St. Patrick and St. Bridget in the fifth century. Bridget complained that her nuns were unhappy because they never had a chance to propose marriage-at the time, celibacy in religious orders was based on private vows and not required by the church. Patrick suggested that women be given this privilege every seven years, but that wasn't good enough for Bridget. She pleaded for granting it every four years, and Patrick obliged by offering them Leap Year-a so-called "compromise" that shows how passive women were expected to be in such matters. Bridget then proposed to Patrick, who declined-promising her instead a kiss and a silk gown.

In the British Isles during the Middle Ages, there was an unwritten law stating that any single man who declined a woman's proposal during Leap Year had to compensate her with a kiss and either a silk dress or a pair of gloves. Any woman who intended to propose to a man during Leap Year was expected to let a red petticoat show beneath the hem of her skirt. Similar laws were soon introduced in Europe, and the custom was legalized throughout France and in parts of Italy by the fifteenth century. It eventually spread to the United States, where it is no longer taken seriously. The tradition of having a man soften his refusal of a woman's proposal with a silk gown continued in Europe and the British Isles until its demise in the nineteenth century.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leap Year Day

Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


U.S. Naval Observatory, Astronomical Applications Department, in Washington DC aa.usno.navy.mil/AA/faq/docs/leap_years.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Leap Year Day

February 29
The earth actually takes longer than 365 days to complete its trip around the sun—five hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds longer, to be precise. To accommodate this discrepancy, an extra day is added to the Gregorian calendar at the end of February every four years (but not in "century" years unless evenly divisible by 400, e.g., 1600 and 2000, but not 1700). The year in which this occurs is called Leap Year, probably because the English courts did not always recognize February 29, and the date was often "leaped over" in the records. There's an old tradition that women could propose marriage to men during Leap Year. The men had to pay a forfeit if they refused. It is for this reason that February 29 is sometimes referred to as Ladies' Day or Bachelors' Day . Leap Year Day is also St. Oswald's Day, named after the 10th-century archbishop of York, who died on February 29, 992.
See also Sadie Hawkins Day
U.S. Naval Observatory
Astronomical Applications Dept.
3450 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20392
202-762-1617; fax: 202-762-1612
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 170
BkHolWrld-1986, Feb 29
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 59
DictDays-1988, pp. 8, 67
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 86
OxYear-1999, pp. 96, 678
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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