By Ben Olson
I received a breaking news alert on my phone on Feb. 2, 2020, announcing the fact that the day’s palindromic date (02/02/2020) is the only time such a temporal anomaly would occur this century. The article claimed the next time it would happen would be in 12/12/2121 when I’ll be dead and gone. The most recent example of this excitement happened 903 years ago, on 11/11/1111.
First and foremost, I scoffed at the fact that this was considered “breaking news,” worthy of a push notification to my phone. Who gives a crap what the date reads when the world is burning?
Second, I realized then and there that I have no patience for these invented mathematical events. They carry about as much water for me as Pi Day on March 14, which is called as such because when writing out the date it matches the first three digits of the mathematical term Pi, 3.14 and so on.
Or take Groundhog Day, when they haul out an overweight woodchuck once a year to apparently forecast the end or continuation of winter. Why in the world is this still a thing? Do people in Pennsylvania not have smartphones or the Farmers’ Almanac?
Math nerds also lost their freaking minds on Nov. 11, 2011 when, at 11:11 and 11 seconds, the date and time read: 11:11:11 on 11/11/11. I was heartened, however, by the fact that purists claimed it wasn’t a true palindrome since it didn’t work when writing out the entire year 2011. There’s nothing like a pedantic math snob to take the wind from your sails.
I feel the same sense of ridiculousness about leap year, of which 2020 is one. Once every four years (and a few other times — see this week’s “Random Corner” on Page 10 for all the juicy leap year tidbits), we invent a date to help our Gregorian calendar catch up with the fact that the earth rotates around the sun not once every 365 days, exactly. Instead, it takes about 365.242189 days, leaving us a day behind every four years unless we add, or “leap,” one date to the calendar year.
Don’t get me wrong: I find no fault in a calendar inventing methods to keep its accuracy. No, I reserve my ire for the silly superstitions and traditions surrounding leap year that are just as irrelevant as the way a date is written.
One tradition claims that it’s OK for a woman to propose to a man on Feb. 29. The origins of this momentary suspension of the patriarchy can be traced back to St. Bridget, who is said to have complained to St. Patrick during the fifth century that women had to wait too long for their suitors to pop the question. In order to appease her, St. Patrick supposedly gave women the “Ladies’ Privilege” to break convention and propose to men on Feb. 29.
People actually take this seriously. Queen Margaret of Scotland supposedly enacted a law during her reign in the late 1400s, setting fines for men who turned down such a leap year proposal. How she introduced this law is anyone’s guess, since she was only 5 years old when it was enacted.
Some of these traditions are still recognized today. In Denmark, when a man refuses a woman’s Feb. 29 proposal, he is obligated to buy her a dozen pairs of gloves. In Finland, the gentleman must buy his spurned suitress enough fabric to sew a skirt.
Trust me, no matter how many gloves or yards of skirt fabric you purchase, it will not lessen the sting of a rejected proposal.
We have our own “ladies ask men” traditions in the U.S., such as “Sadie Hawkins” dances and events during which women ask out men (“Sadie Hawkins” refers to a man-chasing female character in the Al Capp cartoon strip Li’l Abner, whose father decreed an annual footrace in her name, with spinsters and old maids chasing eligible males and getting to marry the ones they caught). Meanwhile, many believe leap years to be particularly unlucky, especially when it comes to love and marriage.
There may be some truth to this curse. It’s a fact that Zsa Zsa Gabor proposed to every one of her nine husbands, claiming that, “A woman has to make up a man’s mind.” Sure, that worked out great, Zsa Zsa (nine marriages later).
In Scotland, leap years are often thought to be bad for livestock, leading to the saying, “Leap year was ne’er a good sheep year.” Try saying this in your best Scottish accent. How an extra day in February makes an entire year of livestock go bad is a cosmic mystery.
Italians have been known to say anno bisestile, anno funesto, which translates to “leap year, fatal year.” They believe leap years are disastrous for planned events such as weddings, claiming that “anno bisesto tutte le donne senza sesto,” which translates loosely as, “In a leap year, women are erratic.” This should perhaps be updated to reflect the fact that, “During any time of year, people are erratic. Deal with it.” I can get behind a saying like that. Especially in today’s America.
Still unconvinced that leap years are no good? Perhaps traveling to the twin cities of Anthony, Texas and/or Anthony, N.M. would shake something loose inside you. These communities, both of which self-proclaim to be the “Leap Year Capital of the World,” hold a four-day leap year festival that includes a massive birthday party for all leap year babies (or “leaplings”) who are in attendance. Thinking of crashing the party? ID is required. Why it takes four days to celebrate one extra day in a calendar year is (again) beyond my comprehension.
So happy [bleep] year, dear readers. How will you spend your extra day this year? Belittling people on social media? Cursing at fellow drivers on our downtown streets? Yelling at your friends and family over spilled milk?
Though I don’t give any truck to conspiracy theories or pseudoscience, I am convinced this leap year will indeed live up to the hype and prove to be unlucky on all fronts. The best thing to do is hole up, drink whiskey and wait for 2021. Or 2121, when — hope against hope — we’ll have survived ourselves, much less evolved out of silly calendar superstitions.
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