Leap Year (and Leap Day Birthdays): What to Know About Feb. 29

My mom tells the story the same way every year.

I was two weeks late and my heartbeat had slowed briefly, as it turns out, because I was squeezing my umbilical cord, and the obstetrician said it was time for my grand arrival. So when I was born on the evening of Feb. 29, my grandfather took partial credit.

“I knew she would do it,” he said.

He, too, was a leap day baby, more than 60 years my senior.

The reporter’s fourth birthday, and first leap day birthday, with her grandfather, Werner Klugman.

The calendar accounts for Earth’s imperfect rotation by adding an extra day in February every four years. It is a science developed over millenniums, dating back to the ancient Egyptians, and one that creates a birthday conundrum for an estimated 5 million people worldwide. The chances of being born on Feb. 29 are 1 in 1,461.

Approximately 362,900 Americans have a Feb. 29 birthday, according to the Social Security Administration. By comparison, about 1.6 million can say they were born on March 1.

Some might find the idea of a Feb. 29 birthday peculiar, even undesirable. We think it’s special. People who celebrate a birthday every year? We call them “annuals.”

Yes, our driver’s licenses give our real birth date. No, you’re not the first person to joke that we’re too young to drink or drive. Here’s what else to know about leap year.

The most common explanation is to keep the calendar in step with the seasons. In science class you might have learned that it takes the Earth 365 days to orbit the sun, but it actually takes about 365.25 days. Adding an extra day once very four years keeps it balanced.

Without leap years, which are also known as bissextile years, “eventually summer would be in November or December 100 years from now,” said Robert C. Washington III, a graduate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and a Ph.D. student at Howard University.

Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed the Gregorian calendar in 1582.Credit…Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the 16th century, Easter kept drifting later into the year. Pope Gregory XIII introduced his own system to keep Easter in March or April, moving the calendar from the Julian system (which adds a leap year every four years) to the Gregorian (which adds a leap year every four years, except in century years that are not divisible by 400; for example, there was no leap day in 1900, but there was one in 2000).

Duncan Steel, the author of “Marking Time: The Epic Quest to Invent the Perfect Calendar,” said the Romans chose to add the extra day in February for two reasons: They considered it to be an unlucky month, and it was the month that came before Easter.

“It’s been a matter of gradual refinement,” he said.

A more accurate system, he said, is the Jalali calendar from Iran, which has eight leap years in a 33-year cycle.

In leap years, we go hard.

Anthony, Texas, and Anthony, N.M., which share a state line, have been known for decades as the “Leap Year Capital of the World.” A leap year baby who lived in the Texas town persuaded the governors of both states to declare it so in 1988 after a flurry of Feb. 29 birthdays.

Others prefer to head to sea. For the second consecutive leap day (that is to say, the first one since 2020), Karen Tinsley-Sroka has organized a cruise for leap day babies.

“Over the course of my life, I had only met three leap day babies, and here I was surrounded with 78 of them,” she said.

So-called off years present a different issue: When to celebrate?

“I love when people ask me, ‘Do you celebrate on Feb. 28 or March 1?’” said Raenell Dawn, a co-founder of Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies. “I get to tell them, ‘Both, because I can.’ But I’m a February baby; I was not born in March.”

An informal poll of the society’s members showed about a 50-50 split between the two dates, said Ms. Dawn, who is celebrating her “Sweeter 16” by turning 64 this year.

Eric Grossman, an obstetrician in southern New Jersey who was born on Feb. 29, estimates he’s delivered about a dozen leap day babies over the past 20 years, including two sisters born four years apart.

“A lot of people are anxious about the idea of having a leap day baby,” he said. “I try to reassure parents that your kid is not going to know any different. This is a fun birthday.”

He helps by sharing memories of his own childhood.

“I would get a birthday cake on the 28th and I would get a birthday on the first day of March,” he said. “It’s better to do it twice.”

From time to time, leap day babies can face administrative headaches. Sometimes Feb. 29 does not appear in a drop-down menu. Some states used to require that driver’s licenses expire on the driver’s exact birthday. There have even been reports of inaccurate birth certificates.

Another obstacle: Turning 21 can be a fiasco if it falls on an off year. Ms. Tinsley-Sroka turned 21 when she was living in Rapid City, Okla., and called the police to make sure she wouldn’t be arrested for underage drinking if she went out on Feb. 28. They gave her a pass, she said. She also called several bars ahead of time to see if they would serve her. One agreed.

“I pulled up, showed my ID,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, we’ve been waiting for you!’”

We are not many, but we are mighty.

Famous people with leap day birthdays include Ja Rule, the hip-hop artist; Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain; the actor Dennis Farina; Dinah Shore, the actress and television personality; Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker; and Pope Paul III, who was born on Feb. 29, 1468.

Perhaps the most famous fictional character born on a leap day is Superman.

For those who follow astrology, leap day babies fall under the last sign on the zodiac, Pisces — known for being intuitive, sensitive, dreamy and creative souls, Chani Nicholas, an astrologer, said. But no more than anyone else born during this season.

“We hate to break it to you,” she said in an email. “But leap day babies are exactly as special as their other Pisces siblings.”

Another astrologer, Rose Theodora, offered a different reading. Because Feb. 29 comes around only every four years, celebrating on that day makes “a person younger than everyone else born in the same year” and experience “reverse aging,” she said in an email.

Pisces are associated with the planets Jupiter, which is associated with luck, and Neptune, which has nebulous qualities, Ms. Theodora said, “so it makes sense that Leap Day babies would have a day that also disappears for three years at a time.”

Until 2028 …

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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