Leap into the Leap Year Bizarre…

A common misrepresentation many of us believe is that there are exactly 365 days in a year.   However there are in fact 365.242199 days, the difference of which, despite a seemingly miniscule discrepancy, greatly impacts the seasonal and astronomical years.  While it takes the earth approximately 365 and a quarter rotations on its axis to complete a full year’s orbit around the sun, our calendar therefore has to compensate, hence the invention of leap years.  A leap year, which consists of one extra day, February 29, for a total of 366 days, allows for the calendar to correctly synchronize the seasons, without which we would experience a loss of almost six hours every year, amounting to 24 days after only 100 years.  Historically, the ancient Roman calendar saw the addition of an extra month every few years to maintain the correct seasonal changes, and was later revised in 45 BCE, with Julius Caesar’s implementation of the Julian Calendar, which added an extra day every 4 years.  Subsequently, Pope Gregory XIII refined it further in 1582, amending to the Gregorian Calendar, (also known as the Western Calendar) which is now the internationally accepted civil calendar.

As a concept, Leap Day and Leap Year have existed for thousands of years, and still attends superstition and ancient traditions steeped in legend. In the British Isles for instance, a custom holds that leap years should bestow upon women the “privilege” of proposing marriage to men, (rather than the other way around).  According to conventions bound in old Irish legend that speaks of relations between St Patrick and St Brigid, any man who refuses a woman’s proposal during Leap Year, owes his scorned suitor compensation in kind – a silk gown, a kiss, or twelve pairs of gloves (presumably to hide the shame of a naked ring finger).  Allegorically, the folklore appears to take similar restorative measures to balance traditional gender roles as the Leap Day does the calendar year.  This romantic tale has been rooted in many early English-language sources, the likes of which include a passage from the early 17th century volume entitled, Courtship, Love and Matrimonie, which discusses the “common law” of “social relations of life,” permitting women the sole freedom of professing their love every bissectile year.  A couplet from the Elizabethan-era stage play called The Maid’s Metamorphisis also alludes to the legendary custom, as well as another passage from the Treatise Against Judicial Astrologie by John Chamber dated 1601, which furtherer discusses the reversal of gender roles during a leap year.  Finally, the earliest documented reference to the “ladies’ privilege” is found in the couplet attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) by Vincent Lean in his Collectanea, published in 1905. Interestingly, within the same decade of Lean’s publication, postcards from the leap year 1908 express illustrations of old maids with many chins setting silver bear traps and women catching men with butterfly nets.  Other such folklore traditions and superstitions surrounding the Leap Year confer that marriage in a leap year is unlucky, and that leap years can have a hampering affect on the raising of crops and livestock (in the words of the Scots, “Leap year was never a good sheep year.”)

And so, while the Leap Year is a scientifically proven and necessary calendrical asset to the management of the seasonal and astronomical years, it has not only played a curious and dynamic role throughout history, but continues to hold sway upon many peoples and cultures worldwide.  Like a full moon, beliefs in the bizarre and strange effects of the Leap Year and Leap Day are not soon forgotten.  Therefore let us appreciate these ancient uncustomary customs, which help us to better understand ourselves in the past and present, and revel in the delights of the season as we bow to the wondrous workings of science and the masterful imagination and creativity of mankind. – Elizabeth Cucnik



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