What is a Leap Year?

A. B. Kelsey

A leap year is a year that has one extra day. On the Gregorian calendar, the standard calendar for most of the world, common years have 365 days. A leap year, however, has 366 days, with the extra day designated as February 29. A leap year generally occurs every four years in the years evenly divisible by four.

February 29 is often referred to as Leap Day.
February 29 is often referred to as Leap Day.

Leap year was originally designed to keep the calendar year synchronized with the solar year, or the time it takes the earth to complete its orbit about the sun. Because the solar year is about a quarter of a day longer than the calendar year, the seasons will not match the calendar after many years have passed. The Gregorian calendar was specifically created to keep the vernal equinox, or the time when the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator, as close to March 21 as possible so that Easter celebrations will coincide with the equinox.

The Gregorian calendar, widely used throughout the world today, was established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
The Gregorian calendar, widely used throughout the world today, was established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

The idea of adding a leap year to the calendar is nothing new. The Egyptian ruler King Ptolemy III first added an extra day to the year back in 238 BC. The Romans later adopted this solution for their calendar in order to maintain correct seasonal changes. In other ancient cultures, it was customary to have lunar calendars with twelve months to a year. To align the calendar with the seasons, a thirteenth month, called a "leap month," was inserted every two or three years. Many countries, including Asia, still use such calendars.

The day of February 29, commonly called Leap Day, has long been associated with particular superstitions and traditions. In Scotland, for example, it has always been considered extremely unlucky for someone to be born on Leap Day. In Greece, it is still believed that getting married in a leap year means nothing but bad luck for the couple.

The most popular leap year tradition, however, spans back to the days when the rules of courtship were extremely strict. In many cultures, women were allowed to propose to men only on the rare date of February 29. On this day, which is sometimes referred to as “Bachelors’ Day,” a man had to pay a penalty such as a kiss, a pair of silk gloves, or a monetary fine if he refused a marriage offer from a woman.

This tradition’s origins most likely stems from the old Irish folktale which tells of Saint Bridget striking a deal with Saint Patrick to allow women to propose to men once every four years. This old custom may have been used to balance the traditional male and female roles much like Leap Day is used to balance the calendar. In the United States, some people call Leap Day “Sadie Hawkin’s Day” after a chronically unmarried female in the popular Li’l Abner comic strip.

Leap Day is considered a very special day for those "leapers" and "leaplings" born on February 29. There is a big debate on whether these birthdays should be celebrated on February 28 or on March 1. Many leapers, however, only celebrate their birthday during official leap years because they believe there is no substitute for a February 29 birthday. Most countries make special amendments for those born on Leap Day so they can be considered eligible for driving, marriage, and other activities requiring a legal age.

Most children with birthdays of February 29 celebrate on March 1.
Most children with birthdays of February 29 celebrate on March 1.

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Discussion Comments


@Iluviaporos - I don't think it's supposed to be taken that seriously. It's just a fun tradition, something for people to joke about rather than something that would actually make a difference to their lives.

I honestly wouldn't want a proposal on a Leap Day just because it might be considered an anniversary and that would mean only celebrating it once every four years.


@pastanaga - I kind of find it to be an interesting idea, because I don't see what is actually stopping women from proposing any other day of the year. I mean, I know traditionally men would propose, and that is usually seen as the norm even these days.

But that doesn't mean that the decision to marry isn't shared among both people. I mean, there's no point in either person proposing if the other one isn't happy to marry and if the guy is happy to marry then surely he won't wait four years for his would-be wife to be able to propose to him.

The only time I can see this being an advantage is if the man is completely clueless about marriage but still loves the woman enough to do it when she proposes it. Even then I feel like other people in their lives would have urged him to propose well before then.


I've heard of the idea that women can only propose to men on Leap Day but I've never heard that men have to pay a penalty if they refuse. It seems like you could work that out to your advantage if you were a woman and knew lots of men on that day of the year!

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