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Tack on a day for leap year

The history behind the odd day

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2012 11:03


Illustration by Burke Stanion/Prospectus News

Did you know that without the addition of February 29 every four years, after 100 years, our calendar would be off by nearly 24 days? This additional day is known as leap day, and we had one just last week. Other countries that hold a leap year may celebrate it differently, but in the United States, for anyone without a birthday on February 29, it's just another day.

So, what makes February 29 necessary? According to Parkland Anatomy and Natural Sciences Instructor Erik Johnson, "The Earth revolves around the Sun in roughly 365 and one fourth days. If we ignore the fraction, the calendar is off by about one day every four years. If you project this by about 100 years, the calendar would be off by nearly a month."

Johnson continued by saying that, "The weather we experience in July would happen in August, the weather we experience in February would happen in March, etc. So, we need to add a day every four years to correct this discrepancy. The need for everyone to have a consistent calendar outweighs the confusion caused once every 1461 days." In order to keep the calendar in line, it is obvious we need leap years.

Johnson concluded, "The Earth's orbital period isn't exactly 365 and one fourth days, so a few leap days have to be removed to account for this. There was no leap day in 1900, 1800, and 1700, and there will be no leap day in 2100. There was a leap day in 2000, so it happens three times every 400 years. This is something that won't concern most people around today."

True, the orbital period isn't exactly 365 and one fourth days; the actual time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun is about 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 6 seconds.

Another lesser known fact is that at one point in time in Sweden during the 18th century, February 30 actually existed. The Soviet revolution calendar used February 30 to attempt to shorten a seven-day week into a five-day week.

"February 30, 1712, came into existence in Sweden when the Julian calendar was restored and two leap days were added that year. Sweden's final conversion to the Gregorian calendar occurred in 1753, when a 10-day correction was applied so that February 17 became March 1 that year," according to the website But who originally came up with the idea of leap year?

Well, it all started with the Romans. According to Eric Weisstein's website, World of Anatomy, "The leap year was introduced in the Julian calendar in 46 BC. However, around 10 BC, it was found that the priests in charge of computing the calendar had been adding leap years every three years instead of the four decreed by Caesar. As a result of this error, no more leap years were added until 8 AD." The Julian calendar is not the only one, though. There are many other calendars that also include a leap year.

However, those calendars vary from each other. In accordance to the Chinese calendar, "The Chinese leap year has 13 months, with a leap month added about every 3 years. The name of a leap month is the same as previous lunar month. The leap month's place in the Chinese calendar varies from year to year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, 2006 was a leap year in the Chinese calendar," stated. Obviously, this is quite different from the calendar used around the C-U area.

Aside from the Gregorian and Chinese calendars, there also exist the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Ethiopian calendars, as well as many others. Each deals with leap year in a different manner.

As with many other traditions, there are customs and folk lore that accompany leap day. One story is that people born under the sign of Pisces on February 29 have unique talents and personalities. There are also a few traditions that are associated with leap day, such as Sadie Hawkins Day.

Sadie Hawkins Day is known as the day when a woman can traditionally propose to a man. Back in the day when rules were stricter, it was only acceptable on February 29 for a woman to propose. But in Greek superstition, it is said to be bad luck when married during a leap year.

Although leap day may seem to be a strange, it is necessary to keep the calendars on schedule. And while those born on leap day may no longer be so widely believed to be gifted with unusual talents, if it weren't for February 29, we would be late for a very important date.

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