Leap Year: Origins and Interesting Traditions

Today is the 29th of February, so read about Leap Year: Origins and Interesting Traditions

Introduction: Why do we have a Leap Year?

Happy new (leap) year from the blog team everybody! Ever wondered why February has that one extra day added to the calendar every four years? It is all primarily to do with the sun, and how the Earth’s orbit around it is not completely aligned with its rotation on the sun’s axis. Because of this, it takes our planet 365 ¼ days to rotate around the sun.

Even though this is only a tiny discrepancy, it would eventually knock our calendar year off course. So an extra day was added to make up 366 days every four years to establish a strong synchronisation with the solar year and calendar year. Nevertheless, we also skip a leap year every century unless the year is divisible by 400 to maintain this synchronisation. You know just to make things seem even more confusing! So, for example, we have skipped a leap year in the years 1700 and 1900, but not in the years 1600 or 2000. This means that the year 2100 will be a common year in future terms.

History and Origins of Leap Year

For centuries, different cultures have strategized and tested various ways of keeping the calendar year aligned with the seasons. There were a few cultures who did not only add an extra day when the necessity arose. They would sometimes add an extra week or even an extra month! Then, in 46 B.C., Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar proposed adding an extra day to February every four years. This was the advice given by astronomer Sosigenes. From this emerged the Egyptian solar calendar which divided the 365 ¼ period into twelve months each containing 30 or 31 days in total, albeit February. This has been nicknamed the ‘Julian Calendar’ because of its founding father.

Nevertheless, a tiny discrepancy remained which led to the first introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. Several European countries such as Italy, France, Spain and Portugal were first to adopt the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. This reformed calendar saw the leap year being skipped when any ‘century’ years not divisible by 400 arose. By the time the Gregorian Calendar was introduced in England, this error had increased to a total of eleven days. A decision was made in the year 1752 for the 2nd of September to be followed by the 14th of September, skipping the days in between. These are often referred to as the ‘lost days’ – and their loss was felt majorly.  There were outbreaks of rioting and civil unrest, people demanding these eleven days to be brought back. These riots were known as The English Calendar riots of 1752.

Romantic Traditions of Leap Year

Love is in the air – across the world, leap year is known to have a few unique romantic traditions. The most notable one is that women will often propose to men on the 29th of February. This tradition emerged after Queen Margaret of Scotland brought in a new law that permitted women to propose to men on leap day in  1288. Women will also traditionally don a red petticoat on this day to make their intentions clear. If their man rejected the proposal, he was obligated by law to provide either enough fabric to make a dress or twelve pairs of gloves. It has since spread vastly across Europe and beyond.

Superstitions and Statistics…

The chances of being born on the 29th of February are extremely slim – one in 1,461, to be precise. This is effective because a leap day only occurs every 1,461 days. In Scotland, it is even believed to be unlucky to be born on a leap day.  The negative superstitions about leap years do not stop here as well. During the Roman era in Italy, the month of February was associated with death. And its extension was viewed to be prolonging this alleged period of doom and gloom. In Greece, it is widely believed that weddings which take place during a leap year will soon be followed by divorce.  It’s not all about those romantic traditions.


Despite the superstitions surrounding leap year, many still like to toast the occasion and celebrate it. In fact, there was a famous alcoholic beverage made to traditionally celebrate Leap Day at the Savoy Hotel located in London.  Invented by famous bartender Harry Craddock. Its ingredients consist of Grand Marnier, gin, lemon juice and vermouth.  The recipe for this cocktail can be found in Craddock’s famous The Savoy Cocktail Book, should you wish to mix your own this year.

Anthony, a small town in Texas, is recognised as the Leap Year Capital worldwide as it is a global hub for celebrations and festivals. This all began in 1988 when neighbours Birdie Lewis and Mary Ann Brown, who were both born on leap day, proposed the creation of a leap year festival. Since it’s approval, it has been celebrated every four years and evolved into a four-day-long event with people travelling from all over the world. It consists of parades, food, music, and even hot air balloon lifts. If you were born on a leap day, that sounds like the ideal location to celebrate!

To Conclude…

And this does indeed mean that our campus libraries will be open for one extra day this year.  We have just the book for you:  ‘The Observer’s Year: 366 Nights of the Universe Moore’ should you want to learn more about leap year. But otherwise, we hope you have found this blog post to be interesting and informative!

By Rachel Downie

Photo sources Glen Carrie

LIke superstitions, you can read previous articles here