Why is There a Leap Day in February Sometimes?

Normally, February only has 28 days. Every four years, however, there’s an extra, 29th day.

This weird anomaly in our calendar occurs because a complete orbit of the earth around the sun – what we consider a year – takes 365,2422 days to complete.

On a non-Leap Year, the calendar has 365 days. Since that puts us behind by a quarter of a day per year, we add a day to the end of February every four years to catch back up with the solar system.

But it gets even more complicated, because ,2422 isn’t the exact same as ,25. Therefore, there’s another rule to keep the calendar from over-correcting with too many added days –there’s a Leap Year every year that’s divisible by four, except for years divisible by 100 and not divisible by 400.

This means that 1500, 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not Leap Years, but 1600 and 2000 were.

Complicated, right?

So Are There Any Leap Day Traditions?

While there aren’t any traditional Leap Day dishes or dances, there are a couple traditions associated with Leap Day.

The most popular Leap Day tradition throughout the world is an old Irish one, which states that every four years on Leap Day, a woman is allowed to propose to a man. In modern times this rule isn’t so stringent, but it’s still traditional for women to propose to their boyfriends on February 29.

According to legend, this tradition resulted from a deal struck between Irish saints Brigid and Patrick. The tradition, it’s said, balances gender roles in a similar way to how Leap Day balances the calendar.

In historical Europe, a man who refused a woman’s marriage proposal on Leap Day had to buy her a gown, give her money, or, in the upper classes, 12 pairs of gloves (to hide the fact that she doesn’t have an engagement ring).

In Aurora, Illinois, in the United States, single women are allowed to arrest single men every February 29. The single men must pay a $4 fine.

Other Fun Facts

  • February 29 is also, appropriately, Rare Disease Day
  • The Summer Olympic Games are always held during a Leap Year
  • In Greece, it’s considered unlucky to marry on a Leap Day
  • Babies born on Leap Day only technically celebrate their birthdays every four years. For legal purposes, different countries set their non-Leap Year birthdays on either February 28 or March 1.

About The Author

Elise Harmon

Elise is an intern from Boston, Massachusetts, where she attends Northeastern University. Elise is studying journalism and has previously worked for the Boston Globe and BostInno and been an editor at her school newspaper, The Huntington News. Elise has a passion for telling people's stories and enjoys running, reading, cooking, and petting dogs.

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