Superman, Saint Brigid and Scottish Petticoats: How will you mark February 29th?
Julius Caesar invented it, Saint Brigid made it special, what will you do to celebrate it?
A Rare Day
The average European might hope to see 19-20 in their life. In some parts of Africa it is more like 10. Before the Romans and their meddling ways nobody had encountered one at all. And I guarantee that you, personally, haven't seen more than one in the last four years.
February 29th - a date that might conjure up images of proposals; planetary orbits or confused clock-corrections, depending on your perspective. What are you doing with yours?
Julius Caesar, the roman Geezer
Way way back when, February 29th was just some crazy idea, on a par with sanitation systems; votes for poor people and Pot Noodle. The ancient Roman calendar had a flexible year-length, which didn't quite match the solar year, and an extra month that could be stuck in now and again if it took the emperor's fancy. Of course, it was tempting to use this for your own ends - to force some pesky official out before the end of his term, or to keep your friends in office for a bit longer. The result of this was that the dates of the year slipped all over the place, which got increasingly troublesome. As a result of this, the earlier part of Julius Caesar's reign came to be called the "years of confusion".
Rumour has it that Julius eventually got fed up with writing his Christmas cards ("Dear Brutus, having a dinner party in March, hope you and the boys can make it") with one hand and slapping on the Hawaiian Tropic with the other and decided to sort the whole thing out. With the result that February 29th was born!
What are you going to do this February 29th?
Every 4 years? Not quite.
He nearly got it right, but there have been tweaks since. For example, it isn't strictly true that February 29th (or "leap day") occurs every 4 years. We actually have 97 of them every 400 years (or one every 4.12 years if you're averaging it out). Those Leap Day fans who are lucky enough to live to see 2100 will be disappointed to know any year ending in 00 and NOT divisible by 400 does not have a February 29th. This alteration was designed to stop the year sliding out of sync once again, and was sanctioned in 1582 by Pope Gregory, who was perturbed that his chocolate advent calendar kept melting in the sun. They chopped 10 days from that year, pulled things back into line and here we are!
Or "bride" as she was once known, but...
Er.... W-Will you...?
So... its worth marking the event, right?
Perhaps you've heard of the traditions, or the myths... back in the day when a woman taking control of her relationship was so dangerous that it could only be allowed on rare occasions, St Brigid had a bit of a chat with St Patrick about perhaps just allowing a tiny bit of give and take and the idea of a woman, rather than the man, being able to propose was born! Just once every four years, mind. They didn't want too much of this "equality" nonsense.
Legend aside, the tradition appeared to hold throughout much of Northern Europe. Apparently, in Scotland, it was thought that if a woman wore a red petticoat and allowed her potential groom to see a certain portion of it, it was felt her proposal would be more likely to be successful. A half-hearted straw poll of the Glaswegians I know showed little evidence of this. Perhaps its an East Coast thing. If the man was enough of a cad to say "no", it could get expensive - in Denmark, it could cost you twelve pairs of gloves. One a month, to spare your would-be-wife the shame of being seen without an engagement ring.
Its his birthday too
Image by Jason Moses
The February 29th Project
But perhaps confirming your love/ surrendering your identity to a patriachal institution (delete as appropriate) wasn't quite what you had in mind... Would you still like to mark it somehow?
Celebrate a birthday, maybe... perhaps its your own? If so, you can join the likes of Superman (according to Time magazine), Ja Rule, and the campaigners behind the Leap Year Day site, who are aiming for the day to be officially named, and recognised in calendars.
If that's isn't for you...what else could you do?...get closer to nature - plant a flower, watch a sunset, turn off the television and go star-gazing... or if that's all too hippified... mark the tradition of the day - tell someone you love them - a partner, a friend, a relative, yourself. Or just do something unorthodox: sing in the street, give a stranger a smile, walk round Tesco in your pyjamas...
If none of that is for you I have another suggestion. Eight years ago The February 29th Project was born. The idea was that participants wrote a short piece on that day, and this was then published via the lovely-but-now-defunct webzine known as Friends of the Heroes. This time around, there is a different focus... a visual rather than verbal reflection of your day. Participants take a photograph, and send it into the project, which will then collate and publish the results online.
As R. Sunnyset, the co-ordinator of the project, puts it:
"people celebrate lots of things, the day they were born, or married....the day someone tried to blow up the houses of parliament,... why not celebrate a day that only exists once every four years?"
Its a small gesture, but by marking one of these rare days, the project hopes to form a snapshot of leap day as it was this time around: years after Brigid, Julius and all those weeping Danish women with their new gloves made the day special.
So...its up to you. A proposal, a picture, or a personal goal. Personally, I feel the photograph is a somewhat safer option. Though I have always wanted to visit the supermarket in my pyjamas...
Whatever you do, I hope it is special to you. Happy Leap Day.