Leap Year by the numbers

by Brian Clarey

Look closely at the publication date of the newspaper you hold in your hands: Feb. 29, 2012. You may want to save your copy. The next time Feb. 29 falls on a Wednesday, our publication day, will be in 2040, just a few weeks shy of my 70th birthday — assuming I’m still kicking by then.

The 29th of February — Leap Day, as it’s known — is one of the ways humans impose order on a universe that defies easy categorization.

We say that a calendar year is 365 days, and it is, more or less. But it takes just a little bit longer for the Earth to make its lap around the sun, about 6 hours, making a full year 365.24219 days. So we add a day every four years, a process known as intercalation.

If we didn’t have make the Leap Year correction every four years, over generations the seasons would imperceptibly slide. Since the concept was adopted worldwide in 1752, we have had 258 Leap Years — more on that in a bit. Had we not added those days back onto the calendar, Christmas this year would fall in the middle of spring. And nobody wants that.

But Leap Year goes back even further than 1752, which was the year the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Britain and her colonies, which at the time included the United States. It was the ancient Egyptians who figured out that there was a little something left over at the end of the year — Lord knows how, I think they used pyramids or something — and started intercalating around 300 BC.

Julius Caesar is said to have pinched the idea from Cleopatra when he made his own mark on the calendar, and the practice of adding one day every four years carried on — with one minor flaw. Around 10 BC, it was discovered that the priests charged with maintaining the calendar had been adding days every three years instead of every four, so they stopped doing it for 18 years, until the year 8.

Now Leap Year falls every four years. Sort of. Remember, the year is 365.24219 days long, not quite a full quarter-day longer than 365. It is precisely 11 minutes and 14 seconds short of a quarter-day.

This inexactitude stung like a nettle inside the mitre of Pope Gregory XIII, who issued a papal bull on Feb. 24 1582 creating the Gregorian Calendar. Pope Greg, as I like to call him, made a critical adjustment to the calendar to make up for all those loose decimal points that had accrued since Caesar’s era by altering time by 11 days. By his calculations, the Vernal Equinox was occurring on March 10, so he used his magic pope powers to turn March 10, 1582 into March 21, 1582, just like that.

He made another decree that would keep our calendar regulated.

By the Gregorian Calendar, we forego Leap Year in millennial years — most of the time. If the millennial year is divisible by 400, then it becomes a Leap Year, too. So 1900 was not a Leap Year, but 2000 was. The year 2100 will not be marked by a Feb. 29, but there will be one in 2400. Like any of you care.

Even this correction is not exact — but we won’t have to worry about it for another 3,300 years, when those minutes will add up to a full day, and by then it will be someone else’s problem.


Back when I worked in the bar, we had a regular who went by South African Sean, a native of Durbin who claimed to have once worked as a helicopter mechanic for the South African Army before coming illegally to the States, where he was by law unable to work.

I don’t know if that was true, but the guy could certainly fix just about anything. Once, around 1998, he successfully broke into a locked safe.

One other thing I remember about South African Sean: His birthday was on Feb. 29. Though he was in his thirties, we celebrated his eighth birthday there in the bar in 1996 with pin the tail on the donkey, ice cream and booty bags. There was also, I recall, quite a bit of whiskey.

People born on Feb. 29 are known as “leaplings” or, less poetically, “Leap Year babies,” and in societies where rights and privileges are granted according to age, they are problematic. A leapling going by the letter of the law would not be able to vote until he had been on the planet for 72 years.

Most countries just assign the off-year birthdays of leaplings to the last day in February — in China, this is enshrined in the civil code. Hong Kong had a similar law, enacted in 1990, that placed the birthdays of Leap Year babies during non-Leap years on March 1. How they rectified it after Hong Kong came once again under Chinese rule is unclear, thugh my money is on the Chinese.

The paradox was neatly exploited as a plot point in Gilbert 7 Sullivan’s musical The Pirates of Penzance. The hero, Frederick, was apprenticed to the pirates from the time he was a small child until he was 21. A sense of duty kept him bound to the evil pirates — whose one flaw was that they would never do harm to an orphan, a fact Major General Stanley used to his advantage in the second act — and Frederick planned to bring them down after the terms of his service ended. But the Pirate King pointed out that the contract stipulated Frederick was to remain an apprentice until his 21st birthday. Hilarity, and some first-class show tunery, ensued.

In real life, births occur on Feb. 29 with the same regularity as they do every other day of the year. This year, some 350,000 leaplings will come into the world.

Famous leaplings include composer Gioachino Rosini (1792), best known for writing the “William Tell Overture,” AKA the theme from “The Lone Ranger”; bandleader Jimmy Dorsey (1904), the less-famous brother of Tommy; the painter Balthus (1908), who would have been angered by any attempt to qualify him here; Dinah Shore (1916), a famous actress and TV show host who used to sleep with Burt Reynolds; actor Dennis Farina (1944), who absolutely made the movie Midnight Run; gigantic motivational speaker Tony Robbins (1960); shirtless actor Antonio Sabáto Jr. (1972), best known for his soap-opera work; and throaty, has-been rapper Ja Rule (1976).

I haven’t seen my friend South Africa Sean since I left the bar in 2000, but by my reckoning, today is his 12th birthday. If you’re out there, pal, have some cake for me.

Leap day events 1504 Twelve years after explorer Christopher Columbus first sailed the ocean blue, he found himself in a tight spot in St. Anne’s Bay, off present-day Jamaica. What began as a simple on-shore excursion to repair leaks in his ships became an extended stay of almost a year. Though Columbus personally got on well with the natives, his men, a scurvy lot, treated them poorly. [run-on] In return, the islanders decided to cut off the sailors’ food supply. [given that this is pre-nationhood, were the people who lived on the the island of present-day Jamaica known as Jamaicans in 1505?] Columbus set a meeting with native leaders around sunset on Feb. 29, 1504, and said if they didn’t acquiesce, he would commune with the Almighty and have Him remove the moon from the sky. What Columbus knew — and the natives didn’t — was that a lunar eclipse was on the calendar for that day. After he “made” it disappear, the explorer and his men got food, trinkets and whatever else they wanted from the terrified natives. Science wins again! 1940 Actress Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind, became the first African American to win an Academy Award. After she received her Oscar, she reportedly still knew nothing about birthing no babies. 1960 Newspaper comic strip Family Circus, which described the exploits of cartoonist Bill Keane’s family, debuted under the name “Family Circle,” because it used to be a one-panel inside an actual circle. And it used to be really funny. Honest! 1980 Stickman Gordie Howe, known in hockey circles as “Mr. Elbow,” scored his 800th goal as a member of the Hartford Whalers against the St. Louis Blues. 2004 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then president of Haiti after winning a 2000 election widely regarded to have been rigged, is ousted in a coup d’etat orchestrated by the Cannibal Army. He is either rescued or kidnapped — depending on whose story you believe — by US forces and eventually brought to live in exile in — you guessed it — South Africa.