The myths and the mathematics of leap years

KAREN KOTZE

The only leapling I have met was in a retirement home, celebrating his 21st birthday with great aplomb.

The balloons were blue, there were sparkles, and the bevy of women around him were tittering with laughter at having one of their residents celebrating a coming of age party.

Gilbert Edward de Villiers Steytler was 84 years old in regular terms, but because he was a leap year baby, born February 29, 1928, his age in birth dates was a beaming 21.

His celebration was at Fairmead Court, Rosebank.

Leap day babies, or leaplings, still get to celebrate their birthdays in common years – some celebrate on February 28, while others prefer March 1.

That day, back in 2012, (which was our last leap year date) was terribly non-traditional.

And if you are non-traditional to begin with, it’s unlikely you’ve been waiting for this leap year to ask your boyfriend to marry you.

But since Monday, February 29, is the day on which it is customary for women to propose, the traditional among you may want to ring that date in your calendar: because the calendar is what it is all about.

And you may want to thank Roman General Julius Caesar, who instituted it more than 2 000 years ago.

Leap years are our way of keeping our modern day Gregorian calendar in alignment with the earth’s revolutions around the sun.

Simply, it takes the earth approximately 365.242189 days – or 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds – to circle once around the sun.

This is called a tropical year and is measured from the March equinox.

However, the Gregorian calendar has only 365 days in a year. If we didn’t add a leap day on February 29 nearly every four years, we would lose almost six hours off our calendar every year and after 100 years, the calendar would be off by 24 days.

The leap day is an extra, or intercalary, day and it is added to the shortest month of the year, February.

The Gregorian calendar has three criteria which must be taken into account to identify leap years:

* The year can be evenly divided by four;

* If the year can be evenly divided by 100, it is not a leap year, unless

* The year is also evenly divisible by 400. Then it is a leap year.

An old Irish legend says that St Brigid struck a deal with St Patrick to allow women to propose to men every four years. It was believed to have been introduced to balance the traditional roles of men and women in a similar way to how leap day balances the calendar.

And where there is love, there are families.

According to Guinness World Records, the only verified example of a family producing three consecutive generations born on February 29 is the Keogh family. Peter Anthony was born in Ireland on a leap day in 1940. His son, Peter Eric, was born in the UK on February 29, 1964. Then Peter Eric’s daughter, Bethany Wealth, was born in the UK on February 29, 1996.

The Henriksen family from Andenes, Norway, once held the official record for the most number of children born in one family on leap day. Karin Henriksen gave birth to three children on February 29; her daughter Heidi in 1960, and her sons, Olav and Leif-Martin, in 1964 and 1968.

Then in 2008, an American woman tied this record.

David and Louise Estes’ daughter, Jade, was born on Wednesday February 29, 2012 in Provo, south of Salt Lake City: four years after their son, Remington, was born on February 29, 2008, and eight years after their son, Xavier, was born on February 29, 2004.

The date isn’t always marriage proposals and 21st birthday parties though: it has had its fair share of dark moments, among them, leap year 1692 being the day that the first warrants were issued in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

Also, explorer Christopher Columbus is reported to have made a leap of his own during the lunar eclipse of February 29, in 1504.

The story told is during his final trip to the West Indies, after several months of being stranded with his crew on the island of Jamaica, relations with the indigenous population had broken down.

Columbus, who knew a lunar eclipse was due, reportedly gathered the native chiefs before the eclipse. He is said to have told them that God would punish them for not providing food and provisions for his crew, by painting the moon red.

During the eclipse, he is then said to have told the indigenous people that God would withdraw the punishment if they starting co-operating again.

The chiefs agreed, and the moon began emerging from its shadow.

One of the most famous leap year babies is the motivational speaker, Anthony Robbins, who was born in 1960.

If you can look beyond being given advice by a 14-year-old – maybe he can unlock the confidence you need to propose to your boyfriend?