The mysteries of leap day inspire fiction and science


It's not some New Age metaphor or Taoist riddle. We all learned the rhyme in elementary school -- it was one of those catchy little ditties like "I before E, except after C, or when sounding like A, as in neighbor and weigh."

Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November.

All the rest have thirty-one,

though February's underdone

with twenty-eight -- hold the line!

Leap Year makes it twenty-nine.

Thus, as with any other astronomical anomaly, like Halley's Comet or a solar eclipse, this very day -- leap day -- won't come again for another four years. That little wrinkle in time has fascinated historians, scientists, theologians, astronomers, writers and a host of other folks (among them Gilbert and Sullivan and Queen Victoria) since 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII formalized leap day with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by which we set our various clocks today.

The problem of trying to find the time isn't a 21st-century stressor but has actually been stalking humans for a good millennium or more, since before the Swiss made the cuckoo sing and before publishers made as much money from marketing calendars as from selling serious literature.

So what is leap year? It's the official hocus-pocus used to ensure that how we count time is in sync with how the Earth and the sun count it. The Earth's orbit runs just a little longer than 365 days. The addition of leap day ensures that our calendar year keeps on lining up with the orbit year. E. G. Richards' Mapping Time: The Calendar and its History (Oxford University Press, 460 pages, $16.95) provides a succinct chronology of the history of these discoveries and their resolution: Julius Caesar got the leap year ball rolling during a chat with an astronomer who explained that the Roman calendar (355 days) didn't match the astronomical calendar. Hence the Julian calendar, which kept semi-accurate time through the addition of an extra day every four years until some confusion set in when someone started counting it at every three years.

Insufficient communications skills back in those days led to another round of change, when 67 days got tacked on to try to set things right. (The people didn't like the extra taxes, however.) Enter Pope Gregory XIII. He realized that eventually Christmas would occur in the spring, or Easter in the winter.

He removed a small chunk of 11 days from the calendar (if you were born in mid-October you lost your birthday for more than four years as well as your wages) and then set it to rights with the leap year principle.

The non-papist world wasn't as keen on the idea, however, and as a consequence it was 1754 before England grudgingly got with the program. (Russian and Greek Orthodox churches stuck with the Julian calendar, which is why their Christmas and Easter fall 11 days after the standard Christian dates.)

The rules of leap year were set by the pope, the voice of God on Earth, and only God may be able to fully explain why February, among other leap year mysteries. Why, for example, is there an entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Modern Library, 352 pages, $19.95) dated Wednesday 29 February 1659? Which calendar was Pepys using, the Julian or the Gregorian, and if he was using the latter (heretically), why?

Pepys' entry notes quite a lot of drinking here and there, which may explain why Pepys thought there was a leap day in a year indivisible by four.

These and other arcane tidbits can be found in The Leap Year Book (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 64 pages, $11.95) by Barbara Sutton-Smith. For example, a millennial leap year must be divisible by 400. Which means if, like Millicent Hartranft, you were born on leap day 1896, you didn't have your first birthday until you were 8. That's a long time to wait for presents. Sutton-Smith's book also details the number of leapers in the U.S.: 187,000; and worldwide: 4 million.

Just how difficult is it to be a leaper? Wendy Mass, in her new, highly sophisticated young adult novel, Leap Day (Little, Brown, 212 pages, $16.95), presents Josie Taylor, leaper with all the usual teen-age foibles and self-consciousness, on her 16th birthday. The entire novel takes place on leap day, and Mass uses the metaphor of a day that both does and doesn't seem real to play with vantage point. Narrator Josie leaps into the thoughts of others in her life while also experiencing a series of pivotal adolescent moments, all on the same day. Mass takes the Brigadoon approach to leap year and mines it to rich effect.

While the novel focuses on the perks of leaperism, the perils of being a leap year baby are also explicated by Josie as she describes how her older brother Rob tormented her about her birthday. "When I was five, Rob told me that my parents took my birthday away because I never went to sleep when I was supposed to. Nice. He then pointed to our kitchen calendar and showed me that the day, was, in fact, not there. I cried for five straight hours until my mother explained the whole leap year thing to me. Then I cried for another five. Normally I celebrate my birthday on February 28th, but it never feels quite right. Now when February 29th does roll around, it's that much more special. Plus, we leapers are a pretty exclusive group. After all there are 365 chances to be born on a regular day, but only a one-in-1,461 chance of having my birthday. In fact, I'm the only leaper at my high school."

A new children's book tries to make the glaring absence of a birthday for three years into the fabulous uniqueness of a birthday every four (provided an older sibling doesn't get to give his version first). It's My Birthday ... Finally! A Leap Year Story by Michele Whitaker Winfrey and Joyce M. Turley (Hobby House Publishing Group, 88 pages, $11.95) is a picture book for younger children explaining (sans Caesar and the pope) in simplistic terms what a leap year birthday is all about with big, bold drawings and lots of birthday cake and frogs.

For grown-ups, leap year proffers a different delectable. Leap day, also known as Sadie Hawkins Day, has long been an unmarried woman's best friend. Among its many qualities, February 29th bestows upon women the unequivocal right to ask for a man's hand in marriage.

The tradition began in fifth-century Ireland. St. Bridget asserted to St. Patrick that women should be granted one day to propose marriage. (Until recently, a fine was imposed on the man if he said no, as Patrick did to Bridget.) In our Sex and the City society, it might not seem like a big deal for women to ask men to marry them, but a century ago it was a social horror satirized by Charles Dickens in "An Urgent Remonstrance to the Gentleman of England." When Queen Victoria announced her intention to marry in leap year, numerous young women followed suit, using the queen as a role model for their own desire to marry the men of their choosing.

Queen Victoria's Sadie Hawkins marriage to Prince Albert was long and apparently companionable. We know not, however, about the many young women who took her lead that year, but at a time when women were expected to wait endlessly for proposals, the possibilities offered by leap year must have seemed quite magical.

Magical is how critics have described Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. Act 1 opens on leap day 1897 with Frederic, an indentured young pirate, turning 21 and thus free from his indenturing. But as the plot progresses (with some of the most hilarious lyrics in the history of musical theatre), it becomes known that Frederic, a leaper, has actually passed only five birthdays and a little more, and thus he must desert his love, Mabel, whom he asks to wait for him (neither seeming to have actually calculated the 60-odd years it will take for him to celebrate the remaining 16 birthdays) and return to the pirates, proving that being a leaper, while unique, isn't always fun.

Time and the astronomical computation of it is a magical entity, as all those scientists whose books and treatises fascinate us so -- Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Galileo himself -- elucidate for us. We can watch the hands on the clock (or the numbers on the digitals) move and watch day turn to night and then day again. But the division of time, the linearization of the world as we know it, is far more elusive an element than our wristwatches can calculate, and science has shown that time is indeed flexible beyond our imagining.

Ultimately what makes leap year so fascinating is its ephemerality. Human nature craves symmetry, and scientists strive to achieve that balance. But leap year is all about counterpoint in our asymmetrical galaxy, an astronomical time-warp magic trick. It's quirky, strange, even a little eerie. For leapers, its cachet is membership in a relatively exclusive club, unique and very cool. For the rest of us, it's a mystery: here today, gone tomorrow.

By an accident of fate Victoria A. Brownworth was born on February 21, not 29, although she was born in a leap year. She has written or edited 21 books, and teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and writes of mysteries more tangible than leap day.

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