5 Things You Might Not Know About Leap Day

The English poet Lord Byron, actor and former Chicago police officer Dennis Farina and rapper Ja Rule were all born on February 29, better known as leap day. (David Shinbone) (Digo 015)

Today is a special day. It’s February 29, aka leap day, the 24-hour bonus added to the calendar every four years. 

It's the reason a few adults you may know claim to be turning ages that seem, well, a little low for their years. (Poet and performer Saul Williams, born on Feb. 29, 1972, turns 11 this year if you count only years in which his actual birthday was included on the calendar.)

What will you do with your extra time? Start by taking a few minutes to learn about leap day's history. 

1. You can thank Julius Caesar for leap day

In 45 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced a 365-day calendar, called the Julian calendar. But every fourth year was 366 days long to approximate the solar year: the Earth’s orbit around the sun, which is 365.2422 days.

Since the orbit time is less than a clean 365.25 days, the Julian calendar was off by about 11 minutes. It doesn't sound like much, but the extra time added up: By the 16th century, the Julian calendar was 10 days behind the solar calendar, even with the leap year system in place.

To correct this, Pope Gregory XIII advanced the calendar 10 days and introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1852. Pope Gregory’s calendar omitted three leap years every 400 years to make up for the length of the solar year. So the year 2000 was a leap year, but the years 1900, 1800 and 1700 were not.

The Gregorian calendar’s leap year formula fixed Caesar’s inaccuracies, but it’s still not precise. It’s 27 seconds longer than the solar year, so it’s off by one day every 3,236 years. The Revised Julian calendar uses complex math to make up for this discrepancy. It was proposed to the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1923 by Serbian scientist Milutin Milanković to make up for the date drift caused by following the Julian calendar. Only a few Orthodox denominations follow it.

2. The first Playboy Club opened in Chicago 

On Feb. 29, 1960, Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club at 116 E. Walton St. in a building he leased from Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz., not far from the Chicago native's Gold Coast Playboy Mansion. The choice of leap day for the opening was likely intentional by Hefner: the company's iconic Playboy Bunnies debuted that day. The club remained open until 1986, six years after relocating to Lincoln Park.

3. St. Patrick could be behind that ring

February 29 is Bachelor’s Day, an Irish holiday associated with women popping the question.

According to legend, St. Brigid of Kildare decried to St. Patrick how ladies had to wait too long for potential suitors to wed them. St. Patrick obliged by designating February 29, leap day, as the day for women to propose to men. Tradition says Brigid instantly popped the question, but Patrick let her down gently with a kiss on the cheek and a gift of a silk gown.

While the legend may be as fuzzy as Caesar’s math, it remains relevant. In the 2010 romantic comedy "Leap Year," Amy Adams’ character ventures to Dublin to propose to her boyfriend on leap day per the Irish tradition. On Feb. 29, 1948, unmarried women in the Chicago suburb of Aurora jailed and fined bachelors for the day.

4. Leap day is bad luck in some cultures

For many years, Greeks believed it was bad luck for major life events like baptisms, marriages and the start of business ventures to fall on leap years. Nowadays in Greece, the superstition is limited to matrimony. One in five newlywed couples there will avoid marrying on a leap year, according to the Telegraph. Russian and Ukrainian traditions also say wedding or buying a house on a leap year are bad omens.

In Ukraine, every day of the year is assigned a saint. The saint for February 29, Cassian, is a nasty, irate old man who imposes bad luck on people with his gaze. It’s considered bad luck to be born on this day. Due to his reputation, Cassian is not even considered a saint by some Ukrainians.

5. Odds are you might be special

It's not all bad news for leapers or leaplings – people born on leap day. For centuries, astrologers have believed they possess uncommon talents, unique personalities and even special powers. According to the BBC, the odds of being born on leap day are one in 1,461. Leapers may have to settle for celebrating on February 28 or March 1 most years, but at least they have their own festival every leap year in sister cities Anthony, Texas and Anthony, New Mexico, the self-proclaimed “Leap Year Capitals of the World.”

Follow Evan Garcia on Twitter: @EvanRGarcia