This year, the universe has gifted us with 366 days. Leap day represents the perfect opportunity to look back and look forward, to develop new traditions and step out of your comfort zone, to explore the world and come home different – one unforgettable experience at a time.
What will you do with your extra day? Use it to do something you’ve never done before. The time is yours to take.
Because it happens only once every four years, leap day has historically been seen as an oddity, a day for declaring that the normal rules don’t always have to apply.
On the last day of February in 1948, for example, single women in Aurora, Illinois, seized control of the fire and police departments, and jailed every unmarried man they could round up. They took over the city council as well, where they debated outlawing corncob pipes and flew bloomers as flags over City Hall.
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first – or last – women’s takeover of Aurora. It happened every four years from 1932 to 1980, always on February 29: leap day. This city’s tradition was just one of many around the world.
One of the best-known leap day traditions flips the script on marriage proposals. No one knows how it started, but the custom was well established by the 1800s. If the man refused a woman’s proposal, he had to pay a fine – usually cash or a new gown.
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More modern traditions include tree planting in Germany and leap day cocktails around the globe. In Paris, you can kick back with a copy of a spoof newspaper published only on February 29 – La Bougie du Sapeur (The Sapper’s Candle), named after a French comic-book character born that day.
In contrast to these light-hearted traditions, in Scotland the whole leap year is considered unlucky. (“Leap year,” Scots say, “was ne’er a good sheep year.”)
But many consider leap day a lucky day, particularly families welcoming “leaplings” to the family. There are two recorded cases of families with three siblings all born on February 29 – one in Norway in the 1960s, and one in Utah between 2004 and 2012.
Roman dictator Julius Caesar is considered the father of leap year. The ancient Roman calendar system was based on 355 days a year – slightly over 10 days shorter than a solar year. To keep the calendar in line with the seasons, Caesar consulted with the top astronomers of the day, and in 46 BC added one day every four years to the calendar to make up for the discrepancy.
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Non-European cultures that used different calendars have fewer customs associated with February 29. But because the solar year isn’t a precise number – Earth’s orbital revolution around the sun takes about six hours longer than 365 whole days – all calendars need to fudge things with their own leap days and leap months, which often have their own traditions.
China historically used a lunar calendar that incorporated seven leap months every 19 years. And the Hebrew calendar sometimes deletes a day, but more often adds days and months in what are called “pregnant years.” The extra month is considered lucky.
Breaking things down even smaller than leap months and leap days, there’s the leap second. We need leap seconds because the Earth’s rotation is constantly slowing down (and has been for ages: in dinosaur times, a seasonal year lasted around 400 days). So every few years since 1972, the world’s timekeepers have added a second to our clocks at midnight on June 30 or December 31 – at which point the time is officially 11:59:60 pm.
No matter how you perceive leap day, its fundamental purpose is to keep our calendars aligned with the seasons, thereby providing stability in our lives. It’s ironic, then, that the day itself is often the opposite – whimsical and exciting. But sometimes we need that release, a little break from routine. However you choose to take your time on February 29 – lingering under the stars in Costa Rica, diving into Anguilla’s hidden cays, escaping to Lake Como from Milan via a helicopter ride over the mountains – take advantage of this rarest of days and make it somehow your own.