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leap day leap of faith

Today is National Leap Day, a day that exists for purely astronomical reasons.

One Earth year (a complete orbit around the Sun) takes about 365.2422 Earth days. Fractional days are fine for those who lead a calendar-free lifestyle, but rounding up or down tends to wreak havoc on societies bent on celebrating annual holidays — the day in question will slowly slide from one season into the next, making things like food and outfit choices very difficult.

Sosigenes of Alexandria, Julius Caesar's astronomer simplified things in 45 BC with a 365-day year, adding an extra day every four years to tidy up the messiness of fractional days. This held up until the 16th century, when holidays started sliding yet again.

Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which loses three leap days every 400 years. This math holds up for the next 10,000 years; after that, someone is going to have to deal with the remaining hours. Or maybe drop the calendar thing altogether and live an eternal happy hour.

After all this attention to detail, one wonders, "Why is February so short? All the other months have 30 or 31 days, so wouldn't it have been easy to even things up and do leap day on a 31st?"

Seems that February suffered under the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Miffed that Julius' month (July) had 31 days, while his (August) had only 29, Augustus "borrowed" a few days from February to even things up. This change conveniently lengthened summer by three whole days, much to the joy of children everywhere.

Leap Day also inspires less scientific curiosities, such as:

"Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner"
Sage advice from 1937 for single ladies
who actively wish not to be.
Foods you ought to keep on hand...
...and the liquids that belong with them.
Saint Brigid and The Reverse Proposal. According to legend, Saint Brigid of Kildare, co-patron saint of Ireland, struck a deal with Saint Patrick to allow women to propose to men on February 29.

There are a couple of problems here, such as whether or not Saint Brigid ever existed, and if she did, would an 8-year-old, 5th century early Christian nun have been able to effectively argue this feminist viewpoint at the venerable saint's deathbed?

Besides, does any modern gal truly need permission to propose? Definitely not.

Queen Margaret and the Gloves. Another popular legend involves Queen Margaret of Scotland, The Maid of Norway, creating in 1288 a Scottish law allowing women to propose to men on February 29.

The catch: The ladies were to broadcast their romantic intentions by wearing red petticoats.

If a man turned down the proposal, he was required to give the lady twelve pairs of gloves to hide her bare ring finger.

A few problems here: Queen Margaret was born in Norway in 1283, succeeded to the title of Queen of Scotland at age two, and died in 1290 on board ship passing by Orkneys at age seven; and no part of medieval Scottish dress included petticoat and gloves.

More relevantly, no such law was ever recorded in the books.

Leap Day Parties. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Leap Day served as an occasion for girls to ask boys to a dance.

In an 1860 letter to her father Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellen Tucker Emerson described the experience as "very funny" and "a rousting" time.

Contrary to popular misconception, Sadie Hawkins Day does not also fall on February 29 (it's celebrated in November, usually on the 15th), so if things don't go as planned today, a future opportunity awaits.

National Frog Legs Day. February 29 is a day to celebrate everyone's favorite alternative-to-chicken dish, frogs legs. National Frog Legs Day was created a few years ago by John-Bryan Hopkins of foodimentary.com to honor this uncommon treat. Frog's Legs are also known as cuisses de nymphes aurore (legs of the dawn nymphs), a dish favored by Edward Prince of Wales. Perhaps a plate of properly-prepared frogs legs is the gateway dish to fairy tale destination weddings.

So if you're going to celebrate one or more of these flights of fancy today (and why not?), here is the suggested scene:

Setting: A well-appointed lounge, reminiscent of the first Playboy Club (which opened in downtown Chicago on February 29, 1960).

Music: Songs of love performed by Dinah Shore and Tommy Dorsey (both born February 29), preferably recorded during a leap year.

Beverage: The Leap Year Cocktail.

This sour-style gin-based drink was originally created on February 29th, 1928 by Harry Craddock for the Leap Year parties at the Savoy Hotel, London. Marriage-minded ladies, take note: "This cocktail is said to have been responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed," reports The Savoy Cocktail Book. Cin cin!

The Leap Year Cocktail

Serves 1

Poor-quality, bitter lemon juice will ruin this cocktail; taste and adjust proportions.
  • 2 ounces gin (London dry or Plymouth)
  • 1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
  • 1/2 ounce sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica)
  • up to 1/4 ounce fresh lemon juice, to taste
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish
Shake with ice; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist lemon over cocktail to express oil; garnish with twist.