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4 years, 1 month ago

Leap Year Lowdown

Every four years, February gets one extra day. Good news for most of us. And outstanding if you were born on February 29th – enjoy it while you can, not so many Happy Returns for you. It’s down to maths, the inexact number of days it takes earth to orbit the sun, a bit of Roman Empire in-fighting and the 16th century calendar meddling ways of Pope Gregory XIII. But numbers and astronomy aside, what do you really know about Leap Year?

Why short-change February?

According to historians, anyone bitter about their February 29th birthday can blame Emperor Caesar Augustus (63BC – 14AD). Known as the Emperor who succeeded Julius Caesar, saw off Mark Anthony and ruled Rome in peace, Caesar Augustus wasn’t so calm about the idea of July (named after his predecessor) having 31 days while his own name month, August, only had 29. So he decided February should take the shortfall instead and it’s been that way ever since.

What does the ‘leap’ in Leap Year mean?

Traditionally, English law doesn’t recognise February 29th as a business day: business finishes on the 28th ‘leaps’ a day and starts up again on March 1st. Hence the term ‘Leap Year’. But, we’re almost certain it’s not an excuse for an impromptu holiday, so if you’re planning to pull a sneaky and claim legal precedence, you do so at your own peril.

Legendary Leap Year Customs & Superstitions

You may never have heard of ‘St. Bridget’s Complaint’, but you almost certainly know women are ‘allowed’ to propose to men on February 29th. Legend has it, St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about commitment-shy 5th century Irish lads. And, with no fight left in him after all the snake-rustling, St. Patrick gave in and decreed lassies could take the lead once every four years. But, don’t get too excited. Leap Year betrothals are said to lead to doomed marriages – no prizes for guessing which gender came up with that gloomy prediction.

Planning to ignore the poor odds and take advantage of your quadrennial permission to propose? Flash your red petticoat in Scotland to be sure of success. And don’t forget to tell your intended the penalties should he turn you down. Depending on where you live he either owes you a dress-length of silk or 12 pairs of gloves to hide the shame of your ring-free fingers for the next year.

Red petticoats aside, the Scots think it’s unlucky to be born on February 29th. But 10,000 plus members of The Leap Year Day Baby Honour Society heartily disagree. Set up in 1997 to celebrate all things Leap Year, the society’s free to join with the right birth date and a great resource if you’re planning a traditional 18th century Leap Year Ball, up for breaking a Leap-Year-Family-Record or just want to commiserate with your fellow birthday-deprived.

And chronic procrastinators can also look forward to February 29th. It’s considered to be an auspicious day for making momentous decisions. Except in Greece where it’s the worst type of luck to get married on the day that only exists once every four years.

Famous (and infamous) February 29th events

1. In 1504 the famously uncharismatic, Christopher Columbus, tricked Jamaican Island Chiefs into believing a February 29th lunar eclipse was divine punishment and the moon would disappear until he and his crew were given supplies. Naturally the terrified chiefs complied and, just as naturally, the moon reappeared.

2. Warrants for the arrest of Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne were issued on February 29th 1692 marking the start of the Salem Witch Trials.

3. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award on February 29th 1940 for her role as Mammie in ‘Gone with the Wind’.

4. Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower and second tallest building after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, was completed on February 29th 2012.

5. February 29th is Rare Diseases’ Day worldwide.

6. Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club on February 29th 1960 in Chicago.

Finally, whether you’re going to propose, celebrate your birthday or claim a holiday as your ‘legal right’, if you need some Dutch Courage on February 29th, we have just the thing. The Leap Year Cocktail, created for The Savoy Hotel in 1928 by Harry Craddock, master mixologist and author of ‘The Savoy Cocktail Book’ (1930).

One Perfect Leap Year Cocktail
2oz of Gin, ½oz Grand Marnier, ½oz Sweet Vermouth, ½oz Lemon Juice

Fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice, pour in all the ingredients, stir gently but well, chill a classic martini glass, strain your Leap Year into the glass, add a twist of lemon.


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