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Leap of faith

Wikimedia Commons

Every four years, just like the presidential elections but with less drama, Leap Year comes around, and February has 29 days instead of its usual meager 28. An extra day in February is not necessarily a great gift. Most of us would rather have it in June or July, and the reasons for this extra day are, in any case, mysterious. The rules say that Leap Year is any year whose date is divisible by four, except those divisible by 100, but not by 400. So 2024 is a Leap Year, and 2025 will not be.

The arithmetic is correct. But why is it correct, and who made up these crazy rules anyway? The answer to the second part of the question is that Pope Gregory XIII made up the rules in 1582. This raises the further question of why, almost 400 years later, we should still be organizing our calendars according to the whim of a medieval Pope.

The original purpose of Leap Year Day was to correct a drift of calendar time away from astronomical time because, whatever we learned at school, the Earth year is not precisely 365 days long. This obsession with exact time is a peculiarly human neurosis, not shared by other animals. Some scientists want to know, like Bob Dylan, what time it really is, and go to great lengths to find out. They focus on something called the Leap Second, which, if I understand it, which I don’t, describes a tiny discrepancy between the atomic clock and the cesium clock. Apparently, it has something to do with planes being on time. But science can’t help us here. Planes are never on time.

On the other hand, Leap Year does have a charming tradition attached to it. According to ancient legend, this is the year when ladies may propose marriage to men and, if rejected, can claim a silk gown as a forfeit, or perhaps a little item from Victoria's Secret. An ancient Scottish law prescribed a fine of "ane pundis" or one pound for any man who refused to accept his fate in a gentlemanly fashion.

In 16th-century Italy, there was none of this romantic freelancing. Engagements and marriages were arranged — usually by the mothers. Young people were presumed to be incompetent to make sensible choices on their own, bemused as they were by sexual desire and by troubadours singing love songs — the medieval equivalent of Hallmark cards.

In many parts of the world today, marriages are still arranged in just this way and have a lower divorce rate than love marriages, perhaps because expectations are lower, or because girl’s mothers can make more clear-headed choices, and pick up some of the more obvious warning signals, such as gang tattoos, backward baseball caps, and Harley Davidson motorcycles.

Over the centuries the tradition of female proposals has been cut back and back until only a single day remains for women to take the initiative — February 29, Leap Year Day. Some people call it Sadie Hawkins’ Day. So, all the dedicated bachelor has to do is stay out of circulation on Thursday and he will be safe from any alarming marriage proposals. Pope Gregory, a dedicated bachelor himself, would certainly have approved that.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.