What Is Leap Day, And How Is It Celebrated Globally?

Leap Day is good news for February lovers! (If any of you exist, that is.)
Man and woman jumping off a rock into a lake what is leap day

If you know someone who was born on February 29, you’ve probably heard them joke about how they’re “finally turning 4 years old” or some other implausibly young age. But beyond rolling your eyes at this tired wisecrack, you may not know much about this day that only comes around once every four years. What is leap day? And what special celebrations of leap day are there around the world? Let’s jump in!

What Is Leap Day?

Leap day is February 29, and, as you probably know, it occurs only once every four years. Its origins date back to 45 BCE, when Julius Caesar, after consulting with an astronomer, added a day every four years to make up the gap between the lunar and solar calendars. But Caesar made some math mistakes and his solution didn’t quite work, so Pope Gregory XIII adjusted it in 1582 to give us the Gregorian calendar we use today.

If we’re being technical, leap day doesn’t occur exactly every four years. Leap years are those that are divisible by four, except for years that are divisible by 100 and not by 400. So basically, 97 out of 400 years are leap years. So the years 1996, 2000, 1792 and 2400 are leap years, but 1900, 2100 and 2200 aren’t. Yes, our brain hurts too.

How Do People Celebrate Leap Day Around The World?

For many, Leap Day is pretty unremarkable. Yet surprisingly, there are quite a few country- and region-specific traditions that go along with leap day. 

In several European countries, leap day is traditionally an occasion for women in heterosexual couples to turn the tables and propose to the men. Apparently, this tradition began in Scotland in 1288, when a law was passed permitting women to propose to men and instituting a fine for any man who turned down the proposal. Ireland has a similar tradition, and some Irish people refer to Leap Day as Bachelor’s Day for this reason. 

In other European countries, the fine for rejecting a proposal isn’t monetary. In Denmark, the man must give the woman who proposed 12 pairs of gloves (she’ll need them to cover her ringless hand!), and Finnish men must give scorned women enough fabric to make a skirt.

Some countries view Leap Day as an unlucky time. In Ancient Rome, February was associated with death, so adding an extra day seemed particularly bleak, and that feeling has carried on to modern-day Italy. Greek tradition says a marriage that occurs on leap day is likely to end in divorce. And even though proposals are welcomed in Scotland on Feb. 29, anyone who’s born that day is said to have a life filled with suffering.

Here in the United States, there aren’t many notable traditions, but we are home to the so-called “Leap Year Capital of the World”: Anthony, Texas, which lies on the state’s border with New Mexico. A woman who was born on Feb. 29 approached the town council in 1988 with a proposal for a Leap Day festival. The council and the mayor agreed, and the governors of Texas and New Mexico issued proclamations naming Anthony, as mentioned, the “Leap Year Capital of the World.” The festival grows in attendance each time it’s held, attracting people born on Leap Day from all over the country (and even the world), and features live music, food and a parade.

Next time your friend brings up their Feb. 29 birthday, tell them to head on down to Anthony, Texas, to celebrate with a large group of people who can share in their fun.

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