Leaping into the new year 11



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This year is a leap year and, by tradition, women are allowed to initiate dances and to ask men to marry them – instead of the other way around – on February 29, the 366th and extra day.

According to Irish legend, two of that country’s patron saints St Patrick and St Bridget struck a deal at St Bridget’s request to allow women to propose to men. It seems that St Bridget was the 5th century equivalent of a feminist although, sadly, it did her no good at all. When the next leap year rolled around after the deal was struck and she asked for his hand in marriage, he politely declined.

At least they are reputedly buried next to each other in Down Cathedral although I doubt if it is entirely proper to say that two Catholic saints – both devoted to a life of chastity, even if in St Bridget’s case a somewhat enforced chastity – are spending eternity together.

February 29 is known in places as Bachelor’s Day. The tradition spread across Europe and a man had to pay a penalty if he refused a woman’s offer. One penalty required the man to buy the lady twelve pairs of gloves, the idea being that the woman could wear gloves to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring. By the Middle Ages in parts of Europe, there were laws governing this tradition.

Less well known is the fact that February 29 – Leap Day – is also known as St Oswald’s Day, after an Archbishop of York who died on February 29, 992.

The last leap year was 2012 and while it is generally accepted that every fourth year is a leap year, this is not necessarily true. It happens every four years except years ending with “00” and that are not divisible by 400.

If it happened every 4th year, we would end up having too many as the earth orbits the sun every 365.242190 days – not quite 365 and one quarter days.

Julius Caesar introduced Leap Years to the Roman Empire with the Julian Calendar about 2,000 years ago and then every fourth year was a leap year and this was the calendar used in Europe until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Calendar. The Christian Church had become concerned that the rigid conformity of the “Julian Calendar” had caused a drift way from the observation of Easter which was traditionally celebrated at the Spring Equinox.

The new calendar reduced the number of leap years from 100 every four centuries to 97. The last time there wasn’t a leap year was 1900 and the next non-leap year won’t come until 2100.

Many Protestants resisted the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar seeing it as a Catholic conspiracy and, for example, Britain and the British Empire – including the then North American colonies –did not introduce it until January 1, 1752. The delay in introducing it so late meant that 1751 had only 282 days for the Empire.

If you are born on February 29, theoretically it means you can only celebrate your birthday once every four years and it is estimated that there are about four million people world-wide born on this day. So, I guess that the choice is yours – have your birthday on February 28 or March 1. Or have it on both days which is even better.

But could you get arrested for underage drinking if you turned 18 on February 29 and were nabbed by the wallopers in a pub on February 28 in a non-leap year? Should you wait and be sure of not breaking the law by delaying your first drink until March 1 by which time you would certainly have turned 18? And could you vote in an election on February 28, again in a non-leap year when you don’t actually turn 18 until the following day?

The chances of being born on February 29 have been calculated at one in 1,416 which are not betting odds.

And if you think that 2015 seemed longer than usual, you are right. On December 31 last year – only yesterday – the folks who maintain the official time for the planet added one whole second. Don’t ask me why but I am led to believe that it helps to correct minor variations.

And leap year or not, why is February the shortest month?

Poor old February suffered from the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus who was peeved that his month – August – originally only had 29 days; while the month named after his predecessor Julius – July – had 31. He pinched a couple of days to make August 31 days and it was February which lost out.

Appropriately, February 29 is “Rare Disease Day” and I have just realised something awful.

My working life on a fixed annual salary included quite a few February 29ths which means I was working for nothing then if it was a week day. The sneaky bastards!


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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. It was written in the stars that I would marry, but I didn’t expect to have to do the asking/begging, now that it’s a leap year, 🙁 🙁 :(!!!!

  2. Very few people remembered in their 365 days wishes for the New Year that 2016 has 366 days.

  3. Cmon fellas…run for your life! You should be so lucky…lol!

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