The Leap Year Lowdown

The calendar year is divided into 365 days. It is supposed to match up with the solar calendar, which is the time it takes for Earth to orbit around the sun. However, a solar year is actually 365.25 days, so the calendar year is a quarter of a day short.

The Egyptians initially created the idea of a leap year to remedy the problem. This concept was later adopted by the Romans, so their calendars included an extra day every four years.

Although it seems like a simple solution, the math does not exactly add up. The solar year is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds less than 365.25 days. After 128 years, the minutes and seconds would add up to add an extra day.

This problem was corrected in the Gregorian calendar which was introduced in 1582. The Gregorian calendar is the standard calendar for most of the world. In this calendar, years divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400.

This correction has almost perfectly aligned the solar year and the calendar year. The two calendars are only half a minute off, so it will take 3,300 years for the calendar to diverge by a day again.

Feb. 29 is a day that occurs during years that are evenly divisible by four, such as 2000, 2004 and this year, 2008. These years are known as leap years. The only exceptions to this rule are century years, such as 1700 and 1900, which are not evenly divisible by 400.

Statistically, a person’s chances of being born on a leap day are about 1 in 1500. About 187,000 people in the United States and 4 million people worldwide were born on a leap day. For legal purposes, a person born on a leap day, often called a leapling, turns a certain age depending on how different countries count time intervals. For example, in England and Wales, a leapling turning 21 during a non leap year, legally turns 21 on Feb. 28.

A simple Facebook search showed that at least 16 people from the Tech community had birthdays on Feb. 29, and over 250 people had leap day birthdays in the Atlanta network. When it is not a leap year, how and when do these 4 million people celebrate their birthdays?

“On the years that I don’t have a ‘real’ birthday, I usually celebrate my birthday on Feb. 28,” said Sneha Patel, a second-year Management major.

“It would feel strange to celebrate my birthday on March 1 since I wasn’t born in March. My friends and family usually help me celebrate my birthday, even when it is ‘fake.’ However, they try to make it extra special and plan bigger parties when it is a leap year and I have a real birthday,” Patel said.

Patel mentions the special feeling of celebrating her birthday on the actual calendar day during a leap year, like this one.

“I feel so different when my real birthday rolls around because it is the actual day I was born. I still feel special on the 28th, but I feel as if everyone should have at least one day in the year when it is their day to stand out from the crowd. This year is going to be extra special for me since it is a leap year,” Patel said.

Feb. 29 has been an interesting day throughout history. In some countries, there is a tradition that women may propose to men during a leap year. This tradition is sometimes restricted to only include the leap day. The French publish a periodical called La Bougie du Sapeur (The Sapper’s Candle) every Feb. 29. The eighth issue comes out this year.

Many famous historical events also occurred on a leap day. On Feb. 29, 1720, Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden abdicated the throne to her husband who became King Frederick I.

In 1956, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that he was running for a second term. In 2004, Jean-Bertrand Aristide resigned as President of Haiti. In the Bahá’í Faith, day four of Ayyám-i-Há (Intercalary Days) is celebrated only during leap years.

Some famous births include Pope Paul III, American serial killer Richard Ramirez and Emma Barton, a British actress.