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AN ENGLISH ROSE IN GEORGIA –

By Lesley Francis

IT’S LEAP DAY! 

I know two people who will celebrate their once every four years birthday today because they were born on February 29th, which is why they are known as ‘leaplings’. One of them will be eight and this will be her second ‘real’ birthday celebration, and as the other person will be forty, she has decided to celebrate her tenth birthday with an appropriately themed party! Of course, their families make sure they don’t miss out so for the other three years, one celebrates on February 28th and the other on March 1st.  

If you want to embrace leap year or are a leapling you can attend a birthday party during a four-day festival in the city of Anthony which straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. In 1988, residents Mary Ann Brown and Birdie Lewis approached the municipal government with the idea of creating a festival to celebrate Leap Day. Officials approved, and the town has been celebrating every four years since then with music, food and fun in this ‘Leap Year Capital of the World’.  

Here in the USA, it is up to the individual to choose but many countries have laws defining which date a person born on February 29 comes of age in legal terms. For instance, in New Zealand, the official birthday falls on February 28 in common years (the name for non-leap years); in other countries like the land of my birth, leap year babies have to wait until March 1.  

As you probably know, we have leap years because astronomers figured out that years were not 365 days long but actually ​365 1⁄4 days in length. In 45BC, Julius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, introduced his ‘Julian’ calendar, almost all of which we still use today, and included an extra day every four years. As February is a short month with only 28 days, it seemed logical that this be the month that is lengthened. If you are a glass half full person you will celebrate this gift of an extra day. However, the cynics among us might resent the extra day of work until payday!  

If we did not add an extra day to February every four years our calendar would get out of sync and ultimately the seasons for planting, harvesting and weather patterns would be wrong. Unfortunately, the math does not quite work out perfectly because by adding a whole day every four years we are adding about 45 minutes too much. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that every 100 years – those ending in 00 – would not be a leap year in order to correct for this. Many of us remember the last “non-leaping leap year”, of course, when we entered the 21st century 24 years ago. Today, we use the Gregorian Calendar, which is basically the Julian Calendar with these missing leap years at the beginning of each new century. 

The most famous, although rather archaic, tradition around leap year in many parts of the world is that February 29 is the one day every four years that women can propose to men. This legend originates from Ireland when St Brigid struck a deal with St Patrick to allow this to happen during the fifth century. Of course, the tradition spread around the world and in Scotland women intending to propose are advised to wear a red petticoat visible to their love – perhaps to give their beloved time to run away! What happens if the man refuses a marriage proposal? In 1288 Queen Margaret of Scotland declared that they should be issued with a fine, payable to the embarrassed maiden, which could be anything from money to a silk gown. In Denmark, men paid the lady in question 12 pairs of gloves – presumably to hide the shameful hand which did not boast an engagement ring. In Finland men had to provide enough fabric for the rejected woman to make herself a skirt. 

Back in Scotland, legend holds that those born on Leap Day will live a life of untold suffering and Scottish farmers worry that “leap year is never a good sheep year”. There is a German proverb meaning “leap year will be a cold year”, which has been true in 2024 in the USA as we all experienced an Arctic cold blast last month. In many places, leap years are considered unlucky, and Greeks believe that marriages that take place in a leap year are likely to end in divorce. In Roman times February was associated with the dead, and extending it only prolonged an already morbid month, so even today the Italians think of leap years as bad news.  

There is much more information at www.timeanddate.com and www.britannica.com.

I say goodbye this week with a quote from the 19th century Comic Almanak, a famous English compilation of humor, poems, jokes and illustrations: 

Thirty dayes hath November, 
April, June, and September, 
Twenty-and-eight hath February alone, 
And all the rest thirty-and-one, 
But in the leape you must add one.

God Bless America and enjoy your extra day this year! 

– ENDS – 

Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or via her full-service marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com.