An Extra Day for Everyone—Lobbying for Leap Year Status

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
February 24, 2004
Raenell Dawn, co-organizer of the Honor Society for Leap Year Day
Babies, is a woman with a mission: to have February 29 officially marked
as "Leap Day" on the calendar.

Dawn began a club for leap-year-day birthdays in 1988 and eventually met Peter Brouwer, whose own curiosity about his birth date led him to create an Internet community in 1997 for people born on February 29. Joining talents, Dawn and Brouwer created the honor society, which now boasts 4,500 members worldwide.

Since the probability of being born on a leap day is 1 in 1,461, Brouwer said, that adds up to roughly 200,000 people with leap-year birthdays in the U.S. alone and approximately four million worldwide. "It's a pretty important, special day," Dawn said.

For Dawn, Brouwer, and other fellow "leapers," having this unique birth date brings both advantages and challenges.

"The fact that you can say you're 11 rather than 44. … People have always said that we're young at heart," Dawn said. A mentor to seven girls in her community ages 10 to 16, Dawn admitted, "They think it's cool that they can say their mentor is 9 or 10 or 11!"

On the other hand, snafus with legal documentation can cause headaches all around. A prime example: Brouwer's driver's license expired February 29, 2003—a date that does not exist. For Dawn, actually getting a driver's license with February 29 on it was a battle, since the clerk did not believe it to be an actual day. "'Are you sure you weren't born on the 28th?'" Dawn remembers being asked.

Lobbying for Leap Day

Realizing that Leap Day does not jump out on the calendar to most people, Dawn has crusaded to correct this omission in the public's collective consciousness.

Dawn has lobbied hundreds of calendar companies to insert the words "Leap Day" on their products. She has also contacted five U.S. Presidents to urge the official designation of Leap Day (which would make calendar companies more willing to follow suit). On or around each Leap Day, she gives educational presentations at her community's local elementary school and on March 1 visits her area hospital to "welcome the little leaplings into the world."

Exasperated, Dawn only wants the obvious to be acknowledged. "We have an extra day—it's only been happening for hundreds of years now!"

In fact, the leap day has occurred over the past several thousand years, ever since it was decreed in 46 B.C. by Julius Caesar as an addition to every fourth calendar year. This step was taken to ensure that the tropical, or solar, year—the time it takes the Earth to make one trip around the sun—coincided with the Roman calendar. This later became known as the Julian calendar.

Unfortunately, explained Geoff Chester, Caesar's estimate was not quite correct. Chester is a 20-year veteran of the Smithsonian Institution's Albert Einstein Planetarium in Washington, D.C., and current public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory.

The actual length of a solar year is 365.24219 days, Chester said. At first, this difference seems trivial. But using 365.25 days (the 0.25 represents a leap day divided by four years) causes a solar year to be about 11 minutes too long, thus robbing time from the next calendar year. After 128 years, those 11-minute increments add up to one whole day.

By the late 1500s the Julian calendar year was about ten days off from the solar year. As a result, the calendar showed the spring equinox falling on its traditional date of March 21, but the actual astronomical event had occurred weeks earlier.

For the Christian church, this disconnect spelled disaster: The formula for determining Easter Sunday was based on the date of the spring equinox. Pope Gregory the 13th had to issue a papal edict in 1582 correcting the leap year calculation rule: A leap year occurs every four years except in years that end in "00," unless that year is evenly divisible by 400. His alterations gave the world the Gregorian calendar, used in the Western world today.

Time Again for Reform?

East Carolina University philosophy professor Rick McCarty became interested in calendars as a teaching tool. In doing research into the history of calendars, McCarty discovered many past and some present movements to reform the Gregorian calendar system.

Two of the more common proposals are the World Calendar, brought before the United Nations for consideration, and the International Fixed Calendar. Both can be reused each year by relying on the insertion of so-called blank days. These days would be akin to "24-hour waiting periods before we start [the] calendar again," McCarty explained.

McCarty's personal favorite time-keeping method is a week-numbering system established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Already popular in Europe and within certain business, computer, and manufacturing circles, the ISO system numbers weeks consecutively. "You could understand your birthday or your anniversary [as] week 26, day 3 … and you'd never need to worry about what month it was," McCarty said.

Rather than doing away with Leap Day, however, people like Mary Ann Brown have turned February 29 into a public celebration unlike any other.

Consider the border town of Anthony, Texas/New Mexico, population 10,000. Anthony is home of the World Wide Leap Year Festival and Birthday Club and designated Leap Year Capital of the World.

Brown, an Anthony resident since 1951, and friend Birdie Louis first proposed the idea in 1988 to the town's chamber of commerce. The town had been struggling to find a way to promote its farming community. With cotton, green chilies, and pecans already "claimed" by surrounding towns, the chamber was stumped. One farmer finally exclaimed in frustration, "Anthony is not the capital of anything," Brown recalled.

Reminded of the media coverage she received as a child for having a leap day birthday, Brown and fellow leaper Louis made a strong case for a leap year festival. According to Brown, the chamber thought it was "crazy" but voted for it nonetheless.

After the first party in 1988, Brown's sister, Patsy Duncan, spearheaded the movement to have Anthony named Leap Year Capital of the World. The title was entered as an official request into the record of the 100th U.S. Congress by New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and has been claimed proudly by Anthony ever since.

Brown, whose five children all will be in attendance for her 18th leap day birthday, is looking forward to a strong turnout this year. The festival is the only public celebration of its kind, Brown said, and attracts attendees from all over the world, as well as attention to this perhaps overlooked date.

"Everybody in the world has that extra day, not just the people born on that day," Brown pointed out. She herself has a special fondness for having a leap day birthday: "I call it the fountain of youth."

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