Happy Leap Day – and Leap Year, too, of course. And if you’re one of the few who happen to be born on this day, happy birthday – finally!
Leap Day is literally the rarest of dates on which anything can happen, but it’s not without its merits and its not without its share of historical happenings. It’s just that it gets a lot fewer of them, as a result of a cruel quirk of the Gregorian calendar. In case you’ve written this day off as just an extra 24 hours tacked randomly onto the shortest month, well here’s a list of a few things you maybe didn’t know about why it exists and why it’s important.
1. Folks born on Feb. 29 are called "leaplings" or "leapsters"
It’s not often, we’d suppose, that the rapper Ja Rule gets mentioned in the same sentence as the late Dinah Shore. And aside from being famous people who parlayed a musical career into acting, you might not think they would have all that much in common. But they do: They’re both leaplings – that is, folks born on Feb. 29, who age just like the rest of us but only get to celebrate their proper, actual birthday every four years. Ja Rule, who turns 44 this year, is only celebrating his 10th actual birthday this year. Shore, who died in 1994, would have turned 100 this Leap Day – or, a spry 25, depending on how you count.
There are not that many famous leaplings, it turns out. Aside from Ja Rule and Shore, there’s Dennis Farina, Antonio Sabato Jr., The Godfather actor Alex Rocco, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Saves the Day frontman Chris Conley, rapper Saul Williams, Law & Order: SVU actor Peter Scanavino and a few other folks you may or may not know. (It’s also the birthday of serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Richard Ramirez, but perhaps the leaplings would rather not invite them to the club.)
2. People with the birth date Feb. 29 may not be legally born on that day
Leaplings worldwide should check with their local government representatives to find out when they actually, legally have their birthdays in non-leap years. In the U.K., for example, people born Feb. 29 only officially age another year on March 1. In New Zealand, however, it’s Feb. 28 that’s taken to be the accepted birthday. The rules vary from one jurisdiction to another, but let’s be honest – the average bouncer at the bar at which you’re celebrating your 21st birthday is unlikely to kick you out on a technicality.
3. Leap Day doesn’t actually happen every four years
The rule of thumb for leap years is that they happen in every year that’s divisible by 4 in order to make sure that our written calendar syncs up with the movement of the Earth around the sun. It actually takes slightly longer than 365 days for the Earth to make a full revolution, and consequently every four years those remainder bits add up to a full day.
However, that’s not actually the case. It actually takes the Earth slightly less than 365.25 days to make a full orbit, and not every year divisible by 4 actually gets a Leap Day. The years 1700, 1800, and 1900 didn’t get one – meaning that those poor leaplings had to wait eight years for their proper birthday – and, in fact, only the years divisible by both 100 and 400 get one. So 2000 did (yay, leaplings!) but 2100, 2200 and 2300 won’t. Only 2400 will.
Amy Adams: ‘I Wanted to Be a Doctor’
4. It’s the subject of an odd tradition involving women proposing to men
Amy Adams starred in the romcom Leap Year, which hit theaters in 2010 and is notably not a leap year (but whatever). The film is relevant to this discussion nonetheless because it revolves around Adams’ character trekking to Dublin, Ireland, to propose to her longtime boyfriend (Adam Scott) in accordance with a real-life Irish tradition that says a man proposed to on Feb. 29 must say yes. Spoiler: It doesn’t work, but she ends up with Matthew Goode‘s character, an Irish guy who’s a better match for her in the first place.
5. It’s the anniversary of Hattie McDaniel winning her Oscar
What’s especially interesting about this Leap Year, in light of the #OscarSoWhite controversy, is that it was on a Leap Day that Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gone with the Wind, making her the first black actor ever to win an Oscar. In presenting the award to McDaniel on Feb. 29, 1940, Fay Bainter appreciates the importance of the occasion, but it’s McDaniel’s acceptance speech that’s the most moving.
“This is one of the happiest moments of my life and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of their awards,” McDaniel said. “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel and may I say thank you and God bless you.”
6. The date also marked a major turning point in the life of Pope John Paul II
It was on a Leap Day that the man born Karol Jozef Wojtyla would realize his calling for the priesthood and begin his path toward the papacy. In 1944, in the midst of World War II, Wojtyla was hit by a German truck and hospitalized. During his hospitalization, he realized that the accident was divine confirmation that his inclination toward the Catholic Church was the right one.
7. It’s also an important day for Prince Harry
It was Feb. 29, 2008, that Prince Harry was withdrawn from military service in Afghanistan following the news that he had been secretly fighting there since the previous Christmas. “This decision has been taken primarily on the basis that the worldwide media coverage of Prince Harry in Afghanistan could impact on the security of those who are deployed there, as well as the risks to him as an individual soldier,” read a statement by the British ministry of defense. Seven years later, Harry would officially leave the army.
8. It’s the anniversary of some sad news for Monkees fans
9. But the date brought good luck to the Beatles
At only the 10th annual Grammy Awards (Feb. 29, 1968), John, Paul, George and Ringo took home their fourth and fifth Grammy Awards for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which won both Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Album. The band would win four more Grammy awards over the years, and there has yet to be anther Grammy Awards held on a Leap Day.