Plenty of Candles

Happy Birthday to my firstborn, Meg, who turns 28 years old today.  And who, if she’d arrived on her official due date back in 1984, would have had only seven candles on this year’s cake.

Or maybe not.  I’d probably be like the parents of most “leaplings”—a term used for those born on February 29—and celebrate Meg’s birthday even in years when it wasn’t on the calendar.  Getting a cake and presents only 25 per cent of the time just doesn’t seem right.

So say some of the five million people around the world who were born on leap day.  They’ve got other gripes, too.  Like not having their special day recognized
on Facebook, which hasn’t yet figured out how to unblock February 29 as a birth
date.  Ditto for Google Blogger.  Banking and insurance software, too.  Leaplings often have complications when it comes to getting and renewing drivers’ licenses.

And on top of all that, some cultures actually consider leaplings an unfortunate oddity, thought to be sickly and hard to raise.

But many leaplings happily embrace their uniqueness. They might choose to join the 9,000-member online Honor Society for Leap Day Babies. Or perhaps attend the Leap Year Festival held every fourth year since 1988 in Anthony, New Mexico.  They call themselves “Sweet Sixteen” when they’re actually 64.  They proclaim from the mountaintops that there’s something extra special about a birthday whose odds are one in 1,461 instead of one in 365.

Until I began researching this column, I thought I understood leap year.  Was I ever wrong.  For starters, I assumed that every fourth year is a leap year. Not so.  Every year that can be evenly divided by four is a leap year EXCEPT those that are divisible by 100 but not 400.


End-of-century years aren’t leap years unless they’re evenly divisible by 400.  Meaning that since Pope Gregory XIII first started this complicated business back in 1582, only two end-of-century years have also been leap years: 1600 and 2000.   The others were excepted to make the math come out right.  Because it takes the earth 365.242374 days to circle the sun, adding an extra day every four years doesn’t completely fix the calendar.  Thus the “divisible by 100 but not 400” solution.

Which also means that my notion that all Presidential election years are leap years was also wrong.  Two of those elections–Adams v. Jefferson in 1800 and McKinley v. Bryan in 1900–took place in a non-leap year.

Unfortunately, in all the other contested battles for the White House, we’ve had to suffer through the whole extra day of campaigning that February 29 brings.

And there are other negative things about leap years besides attack ads and
robocalls.  Those who deal in wool or mutton must heed the old Scottish warning that “Leap year was never a good sheep year.”  Salaried employees must
work an extra day for no extra pay.  Persons of Greek descent must think long and hard about jinxing their marriage if they decide to wed in a leap year.

But I love leap years, and not just because a girl can ask a boy to the Sadie Hawkins dance. They always bring back sweet, sweet memories of waiting for a precious new baby–gender and name as yet unknown, because in those days most expectant liked surprises–to make his or her grand entrance into the world.

Had that entrance been on February 29, it would have been fine.  I’d probably feel a whole lot younger now if my oldest child had just turned seven.

(March 4, 2012)


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