History and travel go hand in hand, and part of the travel experience is being immersed in the cultures and traditions of others.
It’s especially fun when local communities hold festivals or events that really highlight the customs and heritage of the region.
And this is a good time to find some really unique celebrations all over the world — because they happen only once every four years.
2020 is a Leap Year, and although some people think February 29th is just another day on the calendar, it’s a big deal to others.
The fact that it only comes around twice in any given decade makes it the perfect opportunity to do something fun, and many towns all over the world have special customs and festivals to celebrate this strange day.
Let’s face it – the calendar is a weird concept. At least to someone who is not fond of math (yours truly), it can seem like there is no rhyme or reason to any of it.
Some months have 30 days, some 31. Some holidays fall on the same day each year; others change annually.
And then there’s February, the lone month with 28 days, except during a Leap Year when there are 29.
Huh? Who came up with this cockamamy plan anyway?
It seems to have been started, like many other traditions we still hold to, by the Romans. They had a 355-day calendar, but found that when they wanted to hold seasonal festivals, there wasn’t enough time to party accordingly.
In order to keep things more consistent, a month of 22 or 23 days was created every other year. It appears it confused everyone then as much as it does me now.
So Julius Caesar’s personal astronomer (of course, he had one of those) made some calculations in order to “simplify” things.
He shuffled some things around and added a full day, making 365. But since a year was actually a bit longer than that – maybe because Sosigenes was just guessing at this stuff – they ended up with a couple of hours leftover – kind of like when you put together an Ikea bookcase and end up with extra parts.
It was decided that this was a perfect opportunity to just add a day every four years to make those extra hours fit somewhere, and because “Februarius” had gotten the short straw and had less days anyway, they tacked it on there.
Now, this still makes no sense. Why not just give one of the 30-day months an extra day? But I’m no astronomer, so it’s all Greek (or Roman, if you prefer) to me.
Not to be outdone by Caesar, Pope Gregory XIII decided it would be best to further complicate matters. In the late 14th century, he ruled that Leap Year would only occur in years divisible by four.
But – there was to be no “leap” in the first year of any century: 1900, 2000, 2100, etc.
Yeah, I’ll just stop there.
So, anyway, we have this extra day every four years, and humans like an excuse to party, celebrate, or otherwise forget the ordinary business of daily life.
It’s not just a modern celebration, and there’s plenty of folklore that locals still embrace to this day.
This is our year, ladies!
One of the most prominent Leap Year traditions holds that a woman is given the reins in the quest for matrimony every four years.
Even now throughout most of the world, tradition is still important. And for the most part, men are still the ones under the gun (sometimes literally) to propose.
But the story goes that this didn’t fly with St. Brigid of Kildare, a patron saint of Ireland, who brokered a deal with St. Patrick, another patron saint of Ireland.
Instead of waiting around for a proposal that may never come, a woman would be permitted to ask a man who was dragging his heels to marry her every February 29th.
Throughout Europe, this was considered a serious matter, and men who refused could find themselves in hot water – if they even survived saying “no” to the woman’s face.
In Scotland, women were said to wear red petticoats to give their intended warning of their coming proposal. Maybe it gave them time to run, and that didn’t go over well.
So in the 1200s, Queen Margaret of Scotland imposed fines for any man that refused a woman’s proposal on this day, amounting to a monetary amount or a very fine piece of silk.
In Finland, the fine was similar – a fine piece of cloth of a great enough amount to make a nice dress, probably so the woman could look nice to woo another suitor.
And in Denmark, a spurned lady was given twelve pairs of gloves by the rude gentleman who turned her down so she could hide the shame of having no engagement ring on her finger.
These penalties may not seem adequate for ruining a woman’s hopes and dreams – especially a spinster who may never have had a proposal – but they were expensive items — and many times, local gossip of the refusal would turn another man’s attention toward the scorned woman.
In some parts of the world, Leap Year is thought to bring a period of awakening and enlightenment.
As February is the second month of the year, it is associated with the number two in some cultures. Two is thought to be a feminine and enchanting number in numerology, one that can fulfill the heart’s greatest desires. (Remember, the ladies are in charge now!)
Breakdowns of the number 29 are thought to be spiritual in nature, and special ceremonies are held on Leap Day in certain cultures. Two and 29 together are particularly significant, so it is looked upon as a special day of love and learning.
Or not so good luck…
Then there are the naysayers and negative thinkers who think Leap Years bring bad luck.
Greeks believe that marriages that take place on February 29th will always end in divorce.
In Scotland, “leaplings” – those born on February 29th — are thought to experience more than the usual suffering during their lives, and Scottish farmers report Leap Years are not good for livestock – “a Leap Year is not a good sheep year,” the saying goes.
In Germany and Italy, February is already a cold and dark month, and because its association with the dead in Roman times is still tradition, no one there appreciates when the month is extended by a day.
And in Spain, there is no shortage of expressions declaring their disdain for having an extra day in February.
If the whole Leap Year concept of the Romans wasn’t confusing enough, other countries don’t add their extra day every four years on the 29th of February.
Instead, some just repeat a day, meaning that you may end up having a two-day-long birthday celebration to take away the sting of only having it every four years.
The “Leap Year Capital of the World!”
And let’s not forget the entire population of poor souls out there who were born on February 29th. They get the shaft for three years straight, so they’re ready to celebrate their birthdays in a big way.
Two little southern ladies in Texas – neighbors at that – are part of this population of forgotten souls. And like good southern ladies, they were not going to take their predicament laying down.
Mary Ann Brown and Birdie Lewis approached the Chamber of Commerce in their little town of Anthony in 1988 with a plan.
They figured they deserved an extra-special birthday since it only came around every four years and petitioned for an official annual celebration.
Not only did they want everyone who suffered with Leap Year birthdays to get their due, they thought it would be a fun way to bring attention and funding into their little community.
Southern ladies are convincing, and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event – and continued to do so every year.
There’s a giant birthday party for “leaplings” — and they’ve had everyone from a baby’s “first” birthday to centenarians who can pretend they’re only 25 for a day.
There are parades, birthday dinners and cake, and hot air balloon rides throughout the four-day-festival.
The town was given the title of “Leap Year Capital of the World” when the Governors of both New Mexico and Texas made it official.
Now, thousands of people from all over the globe flock to Anthony every four years for the Leap Day Festival, and like everything in Texas, it’s the biggest party around.
Elsewhere in the U.S….
Many small towns and cities hold Leap Year birthday parties and parades.
In Maryland, you can attend the Rhythm and Booze Leap Year Celebration. The name is self-explanatory.
And in Delaware, with its abundance of seaside communities and nautical heritage, there’s the Leap Year Pirate Festival. Music, food, and drinking just like you’d expect from any local event – but this time, everyone’s dressed as pirates. “Avast, half-price drinks!”
Carnival Cruise Lines has also jumped on the Leap Year bandwagon by offering a special cruise on their Celebration line for Leap Year babies. Since you only get a birthday every four years, you deserve a cruise to the Bahamas!
There are plenty of ways to celebrate and plenty of folklore and history to back up this unique day.
However you celebrate February 29th this Leap Year, pull out all the stops. You have to wait four more years for a do-over.
Grab your red petticoats, ladies! The year belongs to us.