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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Leap Years

Do they actually happen every four years? Are you going to be murdered by a leap year baby? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Leap years! Are they really the only chance for women to get down on one knee and propose? Is it a glorious bonus day? Let’s take an extra 24 hours to figure it all out.

Lie #1: Leap Years Happen Every Four Years

Nearly! The Earth takes about 365 days and six hours to go around the sun, so every four years, an extra day is thrown in to make up for it and get everything back on track. However, it’s not exactly 365 days and six hours — it’s more like 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds or so. The solution we have in the Gregorian calendar is not to have leap days in years divisible by 100, unless they’re also divisible by 400. So, 2000 had one, while 2100, 2200 and 2300 won’t, but then 2400 will again (the planet will be long-destroyed by then, but this is how it theoretically would go). 

Essentially, leap years happen, on average, every four years minus a little bit.

The first person to live to the age of 1,000 (earlier point about the world dying notwithstanding) has supposedly already been born, so this could actually be relevant to you. Don’t arrange a party on 2/29/2200 — there won’t be one, nobody will come and you’ll look like a friendless old dick.

Lie #2: It’s the One Day Women Can Propose to Men!

Bullshit it is: Women can, of course, propose whenever they want. Traditional heteronormative thinking has left it to the man, due to the assumption that all women want to get married from the get-go, so the man reaching a point where he wishes to as well means that it’s, like, legit. Then there’s the idea that proposed-to men would likely say yes out of a desire not to rock the boat, rather than any desire to actually get married.

February 29th is, traditionally, the day every four years where the tables are turned and women are, if not encouraged, at least allowed to propose. But isn’t that all kinds of shitty? Shouldn’t anyone who wishes to enter into the dated and patriarchal institution of marriage with their romantic partner be equally free to be the one who does the asking?

Yes, and they increasingly are, say such mainstream institutions as Glamour, Brides Magazine and Vogue, with barely a mention of leap years. Wedding planning site How He Asked even changed its name to How They Asked. Plus Elizabeth Warren did it, proposing to her second husband Bruce Mann. 

(Warren might have opted for February 29th, of course. Hang on, let’s work this out: They got married on July 12, 1980. 1980 was a leap year, and so had a February 29th. It was a Friday — a school day — and Warren said she proposed after the first time she saw Mann teaching, so it’s not out of the question. But hang on, the two of them were living a long way away from each other at the time — Warren in Houston, Mann in Connecticut — and Warren was also teaching, so how could she have watched him teach? It seems like it could only have happened on a date that was a holiday in Texas but not a holiday in Connecticut. Texas has the due-for-a-rebrand Confederate Heroes Day (January 19th, a Saturday in 1980); Texas Independence Day (March 2nd, a Sunday in 1980); San Jacinto Day (April 21st, a Monday); Emancipation Day in Texas (June 19th, a Thursday); and Lyndon Baines Johnson Day (August 27th, a Wednesday and after the Warren-Mann wedding). Warren insists her life at the time was incredibly complicated, so putting a wedding together in a month while living in different cities probably wasn’t on the cards, leaving San Jacinto Day, Monday April 21, 1980, as the most likely proposal date, probably. Don’t hold anyone to this. Either way, it probably wasn’t February 29th. She’d have mentioned it.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Elizabeth Warren did it. And plenty more people are, too. “Tradition is bullshit! Fuck tradition!” says craftsperson Charlotte, who proposed to her boyfriend — now husband — in a Berlin photo booth in 2015. When she told her friends she was planning to propose, reactions varied from enthusiastic to hesitant, with one suggesting that if she did the asking, she wouldn’t know if her boyfriend truly loved her. “I do, he said yes,” she says. 

Charlotte believes we are on our way to a 50/50 split in proposals. “Since proposing, I’ve had a few ladies tell me I inspired them to do the asking,” she says. “If you like it, put a ring on it.”

Lie #3: Being Born On February 29th Must Rule/Suck!

It’s a mixed bag, being born on February 29th — a combination of novelty and inconvenience. “As a shy, oversensitive kid, I had mixed feelings about my February 29th birthday,” says author Scott Innes. “Some classmates at school would insist that on the other three years my ‘un-birthday’ didn’t count and I shouldn’t be celebrating it. Plus, because I was short, I was convinced my lack of real birthdays was the reason I wasn’t as tall as my friends.”

On non-leap years (or “common years”), leapers are split between celebrating on February 28th (either due to being born in the morning or feeling that they were born in February so should celebrate in February) and doing so on March 1st (due to an afternoon birth or insisting they were born after 28 days of February had elapsed). Other than jokes about actually only being a quarter of your age — as used as a plot point in The Pirates of Penzance, musical theater fans — most leapers seem to at least slightly enjoy having something a bit different about themselves. 

“The thing I’ve always found is that one year out of four, everyone remembers it’s my birthday,” says Innes, who was born at 10 p.m. and goes for the March 1st option. “I like the idea that people I haven’t spoken to in decades might vaguely think of me as perhaps the only leap year birthday they’ve ever met. The flip side is that, for the other three years, only close friends and family tend to remember. Facebook used to tell people on non-leap years that my birthday was the 28th, so I’d get messages from people the day before, which was awkward.”

Lie #4: It’s A Bonus Day! Hooray!

Hahaha, a whole extra day of wondrous living, what a joy, hahaha, wonderful! No. If you’re a salaried worker paid by the month, you’re working one more day in 2020 than in 2019. There were 251 working days in 2019, and you’ll work 252 in 2020. You’re working a day for free, in exchange for nothing more than mild novelty, you enormous sucker. 

Lie #5: Ultimately It’s Just A Day, Right? It Doesn’t Mean Anything

It probably doesn’t, but it might. Wikipedia’s list of American serial killers contains 387 names, some of whose dates of birth aren’t known. However, two of those serial killers have leap day birthdays. Two quite famous ones, as well — Aileen Wuornos (born leap day 1956) and Richard Ramirez (born leap day 1960). Both showed up in the fifth season of American Horror Story. Both have been portrayed on screen by actors who have previously starred opposite Mark Wahlberg. They’re big names.

There are only 24 percent as many February 29ths as any other date (not 25 percent — see Lie #1). In a 400-year period, there are 400 February 28ths to just 97 February 29ths. In a typical room of 387 people (a big room), the odds would be that none of them had leap day birthdays (there would be a fair few birthday pairs, as in the famous birthday problem, but the specificity of the February 29th thing means that doesn’t apply). But in this room of killers, the worst room ever, two do. Weird. Probably doesn’t mean anything, but still. Weird.