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Leap year celebrates traditions

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POSTED: February 29, 2012 8:00 p.m.

Today is leap day, a once-every-four-years occurrence. It’s the extra day in February that we get every four years, making us wait longer for March — and February’s paychecks — to arrive.
Leap years owe their existence to the peculiar way we keep time and lay out our modern calendar, known as the Gregorian calendar.
We conventionally count a year as 365 days, but it actually takes our planet 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.7 seconds to complete a single revolution in its orbit around the sun. 
So in order to get rid of that annoying quarter day, we add a single day onto our calendar every four years  — an idea first thought of by the Romans. Leap years got their name because English law hundreds of years ago did not recognize Feb. 29 — the day was leapt over and ignored.
People born on leap days usually celebrate their birthdays Feb. 28 or March 1. These people are known as leaplings, and their leap-year birthday anniversaries only reflect a quarter of their age. 
For example, a 40-year-old born on a leap day can claim to have celebrated only 10 birthdays. 
Famous leaplings include bandleader Tommy Dorsey (born in 1904), singer Dinah Shore (1916) and actors Alex Rocco (1936) and Dennis Farina (1944). Fortunately for them, they were not born in Scotland, where it is considered unlucky to be born on a leap day.
The following events only happen every four years — and always during a leap year.
• The U.S. presidential election
• The Summer Olympics (in London, England, this year)
• The European Football Championship, which is what Americans call soccer. Imagine the excitement of the Super Bowl multiplied over many weeks and countries, and you will begin to understand the fascination of European football.
The 2010 movie “Leap Year” tells the romantic story of a young couple in Ireland. Before that movie was released, most Americans didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned the British Isles’ tradition in which women only propose marriage to men on leap days. 
It is thought that this tradition began in the fifth century when an Irish nun, St. Bridget, asked St. Patrick to allow women a more active role in choosing their husbands. 
As a result of this request, the concession was made that women were allowed to propose marriage on a specific day every four years. (Wow — go equal rights!) 
Then, in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland enacted a law forbidding a man to refuse a proposal made to him on this day. If he refused, he would be fined. 
However, most historians believe that the tradition started because Feb. 29 had no legal status in England at that time, so if a man did not want to accept a woman’s marriage proposal, he could just ignore it because the day did not officially exist.
Years ago, when I first visited the United States with my husband, I mentioned this long-established tradition to his American relatives. They asked,  “Don’t you mean Sadie Hawkins Day?” And I looked at them just as blankly as they had at me a few moments earlier. 
Of course, I now know the story of the homely daughter of Dogpatch whose desperate father began the tradition of spinsters running after the town’s bachelors to catch husbands.
The tradition was immortalized in the 1930s when the Li’l Abner comic strip featured this race every November. 
By 1952, Sadie Hawkins Day apparently was celebrated at 40,000 known venues — often in conjunction with a dance — and it became an annual gender role reversal day observed on the Saturday after Nov. 9 in the United States and Canada.
In 1988, the small town of Anthony, Texas, voted itself to be the leap year capital of the world. The town, which has a population of 4,400, holds a festival every four years, complete with parties, golf tournaments, hot air balloon rides, chuck wagon breakfasts and sightseeing tours.
If you are a leapling — as is one in every 1,461 Americans — you can head on down to Texas to celebrate your birthday.
Weird, but God bless America anyway!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs — soon to be joined by an American West Highland terrier. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com  or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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