February 29 – a most ingenious paradox


Sasin Tipchar, www.pixabay

Every four years we get to wish our friend (let’s call her Hannah), a very real birthday, as she was born on February 29. Hannah was born in a Leap Year, so officially celebrates her birthday every four years. Leaplings, as they are known, are a rare breed.

There have been only 2,470 Australians born on February 29 over the past 10 years, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. There are, however, 4.8 million Leaplings world-wide, 205,000 of whom live in the USA.

The chances of being born on February 29 are 1 in 1427. Longer odds might apply to Hannah’s discovery that a fellow Leapling shared her workplace.

Hannah has warmed to the idea over the years, saying it is always a talking point when birthdays are being discussed. In the workplace, there is little chance of avoiding that special day. On her 48th birthday (when in Leapling terms she was only 12), Hannah’s work colleagues approached her deadpan, declaring it was time for ‘the talk’.

There are a few catches to being born on a day that is only recognised every four years. Chief among them is the plight of Frederic, an apprentice pirate in Gilbert & Sullivan’s light opera, The Pirates of Penzance.  In Pirates, G&S, as usual, indulge their penchant for social satire: a man of low social standing is smitten by a middle-class damsel (or vice versa). Someone usually objects to the romance and so the fun ensues.

In this case, Frederic falls for the Pirate King’s daughter Mabel (she reciprocates). Unluckily for Frederic, he was born on February 29. The Pirate King decrees (on a technicality) that Frederic is not old enough to marry anybody and is in fact indentured until he reaches the age of 21 (or in Frederic’s case 84 years).

G&S cut loose on the concept of Leap Year, declaring it “a most ingenious paradox”.

G&S’s copyright expired in the 1980s, so I’m quoting at length the Pirate King’s reasoning (delivered mid-song as a rhyming monologue):

“For some ridiculous reason, to which, however, I’ve no desire to be disloyal,

Some person in authority, I don’t know who, very likely the Astronomer Royal,

Has decided that, although for such a beastly month as February, twenty-eight days as a rule are plenty,

One year in every four his days shall be reckoned as nine and twenty.

Through some singular coincidence – I shouldn’t be surprised if it were owing to the agency of an ill-natured fairy –

You are the victim of this clumsy arrangement, having been born in leap-year, on the twenty-ninth of February;

And so, by a simple arithmetical process, you’ll easily discover,

That though you’ve lived twenty-one years, yet, if we go by birthdays, you’re only five and a little bit over!

I am not the first to observe that by acquiring an extra day every four years, employers are getting our enterprise for a bargain. February 29 is not a public holiday and it matters not if it falls on a weekend (as it does in 2020). The bottom line is, it’s an extra day is squeezed into the calendar, at the expense of working people.

It did not surprise me, then, having made this observation, to discover an attempt in the UK to have February 29 declared a Bank Holiday.

A petition made to the 2015-2017 government argued that the average salaried worker was losing out on £113 pounds ($A233)  on account of being required to work one unpaid day in a calendar year.

The government responded to the petition, signed by 16,856 citizens, saying it had no plans to introduce an additional public holiday. An Impact Assessment for the additional Diamond Jubilee holiday in 2012 revealed that day alone cost the UK economy around £1.2 billion. Moreover, the government said, the extra day actually benefited those (Ed: in the gig economy), paid by the day or the hour.

I found a trove of statistics around February 29, which dates back to1582. It started with Pope Gregory III and the Gregorian calendar. It was calculated that it takes 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds for the Earth to go around the Sun. This results in an accumulation of ‘quarter days’. The Gregorian calendar added an extra day every four years to counteract this.

As if 29 days in February were not enough, two countries had a stab at adding yet another day. Sweden introduced a February 30 in the early 1700s (by accident), during a period where the country was switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.  The Soviet Union observed February 30 in 1930 and 1931 after introducing a ‘revolutionary calendar’ in 1929. This calendar featured five-day weeks, 30-day months for every working month.

Leaplings share their birthday with celebrities including Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, actor Dennis Farina, big band era singer Dinah Shore, rugby league player Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Australian actor and comedian Frank Woodley and US rapper Ja Rule.

But what you probably really want to know is why women are encouraged to propose to men in a Leap Year.

One version is that Ireland’s St Bridget and St Patrick cooked it up between them in the 5th century. If a woman proposed to a man and he refused, he had to buy her a pair of gloves, so the legend goes.

Other accounts say the tradition started in Scotland, where the unmarried Queen Margaret took St Patrick’s informal arrangement and passed it into law in 1288, giving women the right to propose to men in a Leap Year. Men who refused the proposal in Scotland were ‘fined’, the penalties ranging from a kiss to a silk dress for the jilted woman.

Canadian blogger Omar Ha-Redeye, writing in Slaw, Canada’s online legal magazine, doubts this story, observing that as Queen Margaret was only five years old at the time, her influence on matters of State was somewhat suspect.

Nevertheless, the Celtic folklore about Leap Year was readily adopted by Victorian society, who held Leap Year dances, so women could find suitable men to whom they could propose.

Given its romantic potential, I was puzzled to find only one mainstream movie made around the idea of a woman proposing to a man in a Leap Year.

Perhaps nobody has been game since reviewers gave Leap Year (2010) such a bollocking. Leap Year, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, is set in Ireland. The opaque plot involves a girl (Amy) travelling abroad to propose to her boyfriend. In so doing, she gets involved with Declan (Goode), a grumpy Irish innkeeper with money problems. The movie is said to be loosely based on the silver screen era hits It Happened One Night and I Know Where I’m Going.  

Empire critic William Thomas made it clear how far short it fell of the romantic sizzle of the latter (starring Clarke Gable and Claudette Colbert).

“Rubbish. Irish eyes will be hard pressed to grimace, let alone smile,Thomas wrote.

Donald Clarke of The Irish Times gave the film one star out of five, saying it was “offensive, reactionary and patronising”. He said Leap Year (widely accepted as the worst movie made about Ireland), was evidence that: “Hollywood is incapable of seeing the Irish as anything but IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles”.

Ah yes, but the romantics leapt at Leap Year, shelling out $32.6 million at the box office.

What do critics know, eh?

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February 28, 2020 2:09 pm

If you will permit the author a small PS, Leap Year’s box office revenue was double the average for the romantic comedy genre. Not bad for a movie rated 23% by Rotten Tomatoes’ panel of 133 reviwers

March 4, 2020 8:26 am

It seems that the extra day causes issues with Govt. instrumentalities as well. My father passed away on 29 Feb and many years later that I saw a copy of his death certificate. It shows 1 March.