It's a leap year! A look back at leap years and how the whole thing started

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The earth needs a little more than a year to orbit the sun — 365.242 days, in fact.

But, as we all know, a calendar year only has 365 days. So, the early Romans came up with a solution. Every fourth year, they decided to add an extra day to keep the calendars accurate. The added day eventually became set as Feb. 29 and the years in which those extra days are present became known as leap years.

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Leap day and leap year lore has existed ever since. Here are some fun and fitting facts about Feb. 29, since we are about to mark this year — 2024 — as a leap year:

  • If there wasn’t a leap year every four years, Christmas Day — over the centuries — would become a day that falls in the middle of summer weather.
  • Some early computer programs experience problems with the extra day, leading to the term “leap year bug.”
  • Although marriage can — of course — be proposed by women these days (think Lindsey Vonn, Pink, Jennifer Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, etc.), in decades past a woman was supposed to wait for a guy to pop the question. The exception was on Feb. 29, when society decided it was acceptable for women to issue proposals.
  • If a man refused a woman’s proposal on leap days, he was supposed to pay her a penalty ranging from fabric in Finland to gloves and a rose in Scotland.
  • If you’re born on Feb. 29, you can be called a leaper, or sometimes a leapling.
  • The town of Anthony, Texas, declared itself the Leap Year Capital of the World, after a member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce — herself a leaper — proposed the idea, noting no other community in the world celebrated the event. A festival is held there, celebrating Feb. 29, and leapers — some from as far away as Europe and Australia — gather as part of the town’s Worldwide Leap Year Birthday Club.
  • While ancient ancestors decided to add a day to the calendar every four years, scientists eventually realized this gave us a bit too much time. The solution? A leap year now occurs every four years, unless it’s a year that’s divisible by 100. That means years like 1900 weren’t a leap year. But there’s an exception: If a year that’s divisible by 100 is also divisible by 400, it will become a leap year. Thus, the year 2000 was a leap year.
  • A leap year can also be called an intercalary year.
  • A year that isn’t a leap year is a common year.
  • Calendars that recognize a leap year are based on Gregorian calendars (the most common in the world), but other calendars follow alternate practices to address the earth’s 365.242-day trip around the sun. Some calendars add an entire month into a given year, a number of times each century.
  • While some cultures believe getting married on Feb. 29 is lucky, others see the day as unlucky. In fact in Greece, one poll indicated one in five couples say they avoid getting married in an entire leap year.
  • A number of destinations, clubs and attractions around the world hold leap day parties or specials this month. Leap year babies may even find themselves getting special treatment on Feb. 29, such as free admission to attractions such as the London Eye in the U.K. and the Skyjump at the Strat (where you can be strapped into a harness and then “leap” off the 108th floor of the structure, while attached to a zipline that takes you to the ground.)
  • The opera Pirates of Penzance plays on the leap year baby phenomenon, when a young man — committed to serve the pirates until his 21st birthday — realizes he is bound to them for 80-plus years, due to his Feb. 29 birthday.
  • In the comics, Superman was born on a leap day.
  • While some people also refer to Feb. 29 as Sadie Hawkins Day, that pseudo-holiday — on which women were once encouraged to ask men on dates — actually occurs in November.
  • Famous leap year babies include motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who was born Feb. 29, 1960, and this year celebrates his 16th birthday. Rapper Ja Rule will celebrate his 12th birthday this Feb. 29. Actor Antonio Saboto Jr. will celebrate his 13th.
  • Calgary-based WestJet Airlines also celebrates its birthday on Feb. 29; its first flight occurred on Feb. 29, 1996.

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For those born on Feb. 29, a joke about their age seems ongoing throughout their lives. Over the years, the Calgary Herald published these stories about leap year babies.

44 years ago, from 1980:

Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 1980
Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 1980.

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Here’s an archived Herald story that showed an increase in marriages was occurring as the leap year started in 1928. Later news stories, however, indicated there was no statistical difference in the number of marriages in a leap year vs a non-leap year.

Calgary Herald; Jan. 31, 1928.
Calgary Herald; Jan. 31, 1928.

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This 1932 leap year dance in Toronto ended with 12 couples becoming engaged, during which “girls were authorized to propose”!

Calgary Herald; March 2, 1932.
Calgary Herald; March 2, 1932.

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From 1936, here are some of the Herald’s leap year stories, including one about a leap year tea party. A draw prize for a cushion was won by the person with ticket #124! And, in a nearby ad, check out those prices for a piano — starting at $110.

Calgary Herald; Feb. 28, 1936.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 28, 1936.
Calgary Herald, Feb. 29, 1936.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 1936.

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20 years ago, from 2004:

Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 2004.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 2004.

And here’s the story, by Jason Fekete, under the headline: Leap year babies ready to party: Weekend bash and cake worth the wait for Calgary girls born on Feb. 29

It’s not easy going to school with classmates four times your age — the taunting, the finger-pointing, being called a baby.

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Just ask Jessica Draga and her best friend Jalin Couper, who are celebrating their “third” birthdays today even though they’re in Grades 7 and 6 respectively.

No, the two girls aren’t the Doogie Howsers of the real world. They’re just birthday-deprived.

Jessica and Jalin are leapers — leap year babies born 12 years ago on Feb. 29.

So when you can only truly celebrate your birthday once every four years, it doesn’t go by unnoticed.

I have all these people at school saying, ‘Hey, they’re three-year-olds,’ ” says the blond, brown-eyed Jalin, in a mocking voice.

It’s so annoying sometimes.

People say, ‘What do you mean, the 29th?’ ” adds blond, blue-eyed Jessica, shaking her head.

They just don’t understand. People are just so dumb.

Both girls say they’ll receive the spoils that come with a rare birthday celebration — more gifts, extra cash and more attention.

But when the other three years roll around between birthdays, Jalin and Jessica get lost in the mix, not able to enjoy their special day, say their parents.

I remember both kids always saying, ‘I don’t get to circle my day on the calendar,’ ” says Jane Couper, Jalin’s mom.

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The term “leap year” is fitting for Jessica and Jalin because they grow leaps and bounds between each birthday.

Next time up, they will be driving age, which sends a jolt of terror through Jessica’s mom, Tammy, sitting in her Beddington-area home.

Couper rolls her eyes at the thought of what could be in line four years down the road.

I can see her 16th (fourth) birthday being a pretty big one,” she says. “We’ll have to start planning soon.

Being parents of leap year children presents a handful of problems for Couper and Draga, who dreaded the thought of a leap year baby before the girls were even born.

I didn’t want to have it that day. I thought, ‘No! No!,’ ” chuckles Draga.

I was ecstatic that we were having a baby, but had strange feelings knowing that it was on the 29th,” says Couper.

The two families met through a mutual friend when their girls were six months old and Draga began babysitting both of them.

It’s been a wild ride ever since, but the kids (and parents) remain best friends, despite going to different schools — Jessica’s in the public system and Jalin in the Catholic — and being in different grades.

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When Draga and Couper enrolled the girls in elementary school, the cutoff date for registering students was Feb. 28. Draga chose to push Jessica ahead a year, while Couper held Jalin back.

Similar registration problems have dogged both families for years, with the parents often unable to enroll for sports or activities over the Internet because computer calenders often don’t include 29 days in February.

Even with the headaches, the parents and kids maintain a sense of humour about the birthdays — or lack thereof.

I think when I’m 40 I’ll actually be celebrating my 10th birthday and I’ll tell people I’m still young,” Jalin says.

These kids will never collect pension because they’ll never be 65,” Couper jokes, before adding: “Jalin will never date anyone because she’ll never be of age.

Draga says the two girls are inseparable, connected through their special day.

It’s like having twin sisters you didn’t plan for,” she laughs.

This year, the girls will be able to party times two. Jessica held her own party with Jalin and 11 other friends on Feb. 20, while Jalin’s bash is this weekend, including a sleepover and a pool party.

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Along with the partying, the other thing leap years are always good for is the memories. Much like New Year, it’s one of those rare days not forgotten in photo albums.

As their lives go on, they’ll always remember what they did on that day,” Couper says.

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Through the decades, advertisers used leap years as a marketing tool and often promoted prices as once-in-every-four-year deals. Here’s a look at some of their leap year ads over the years.

1928

The Hudson Bay Company went “all in” for its 1928 leap year sale, promoting a myriad of products on sale for 29 cents, since there was a Feb. 29 that year. You could purchase anything from velvet hats and pillow slips to washboards and green beans for 29 cents.

Calgary Herald, Feb. 28, 1928.
Calgary Herald, Feb. 28, 1928.

1940

The Albertan; Feb. 29, 1940
The Albertan; Feb. 29, 1940.

1956

The Albertan; Feb. 28, 1956
The Albertan; Feb. 28, 1956

1978

Calgary Herald; Feb. 28, 1972.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 28, 1972.

1980

Calgary Herald; Feb. 14, 1980.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 14, 1980.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 1980.
Calgary Herald; Feb. 29, 1980.

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