The 'leaping saint' and other fascinating Catholic facts about Leap Year

Earth is pictured in this NASA image released July 23, 2015. (CNS photo/NASA, Ames, JPL-Caltech, T. Pyle, Handout via Reuters)

Every fourth year someone runs for president. Every fourth year, since 1896 save during times of war, the world has celebrated an Olympiad. And, every fourth year, the month of February is one day longer, reminding us that every fourth year is a Leap Year — usually.

Leap Year is a necessity. The Earth we live on revolves around the sun in about 365.242189 days. Or, to be precise, a total of 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds.

From ancient times, several Mediterranean civilizations kept a 355-day year. Every few years a leap-month — known as an intercalary or epagonal month — was inserted to bring the year back into line with the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. On the other hand, the 360 day-long, Egyptian year ended with either five or six added days that did the same job. This system survives in the liturgical calendar of the Coptic (Egyptian) Church.

Having taken over leadership of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar called for reforming the calendar. He ordered the astronomer, Sosigenes, to work on the project.

Sosigenes decided on a 365-day year. Aware of the yearly addition of six hours, and knowing that four times six equals 24, Sosigenes came up with adding an extra day every four years to February, the last month in the Roman calendar, March being the first month. This is why September ("seventh"), October ("eighth"), November ("ninth") and December ("tenth") have those names. Thus, in 46 B.C., the Julian calendar was put into effect and Leap Day followed.

Sosigenes, however, blundered. As noted above, the extra time is 11 minutes and 14 seconds short of six hours, resulting in a new day every 128 years. The error became obvious, but the Romans were loath to monkey around with the calendar authorized by the now divine Julius, the Senate having even renamed the fifth month of the year, July, in his honor.

In the event, the Catholic Church was founded by Christ, the real God incarnate. His Resurrection became the focal point of worship; its yearly anniversary observed by the entire the Church. The calendar’s problem persisted and reform was advised, if not strongly pressed upon the attention of the pope, by one ecumenical council after another, including, in its final session, by the Council of Trent in 1563.

By the sixteenth century, the Julian calendar was 10 days out of alignment with the seasons. The vernal equinox now fell on March 11, and the autumnal on Sept. 11; the shortest day was Dec. 11, and the longest June 11, the feast of St. Barnabas, whence-the old rhyme:

“Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.”

Worse, the error was causing havoc with the celebration of Easter, prescribed by the First Council of Nicæa (325) as occurring on the first Sunday following the first full moon of spring.

In the Holy Year 1575, Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) called together a commission to consider the calendar devised by Aloysius (Luigi) Lilius, a brilliant Italian physician, astronomer, philosopher and chronologist. Lilius died in 1576, but Christopher Clavius, a German Jesuit priest, mathematician and astronomer, and Pedro Chacón, a Spanish priest, professor of Greek, theologian, historian and mathematician, labored to perfect Lilius’ work. What is now known as the Gregorian calendar was put into provisional use in most Catholic countries in 1578.

Issuing the papal bull Inter Gravissimas on Feb. 24, 1582, Pope Gregory dropped 10 days (Thursday, Oct. 4, to Friday, Oct. 15, 1582). He ordered clergy to use the new calendar liturgically, while urging all Catholic sovereigns to adopt the same for the civil year.

Protestant countries, many calling the new calendar the work of Antichrist, resentfully took another 200-300 years to effect that change. The Orthodox Church, citing lack of a directive by an ecumenical council, continues using the Julian calendar, now 13 days behind.

The genius of the Gregorian calendar is to drop Leap Year in all century years not divisible by 400. Therefore, 1700, 1800 and 1900 had 365 days, while 1600 and 2000 had 366 days. So well did this trick solve the problem of those pesky 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds, that 35 centuries will pass before this error results in a single extra day, since the length of the Gregorian year exceeds the true astronomical year by 26 seconds.

Leap Year Liturgy — Matthias, the Leaping Saint

Although Pope Gregory’s new calendar solved the seasonal problems with the year, it caused a liturgical problem. What to do on Leap Year Day? Long before, the Orthodox Church had assigned Feb. 29 to St. Cassian, celebrated every fourth year, the legendary price for only halfheartedly accepting assignment of his duties.

The Catholic Church did not want a saint’s day occurring once each four years. It borrowed the Julian calendar’s method of counting days by Calends, Nones and Ides. The Roman Leap Year Day was the 24th of February. The 24th day was doubled on the 25th day, the sixth before the Calends (or first) of March.

This additional day was called “double-sixth-day” (six days before the first day of March, the Calends). On the 24th of February, the Church had assigned the feast of St. Matthias, the disciple chosen to fill the place of Judas among the apostles (Acts 1:15-26). In Leap Year, the 24th was simply repeated on the 25th and St. Matthias was again commemorated, being said to “leap” to the next day, allowing the saints’ days following to remain, ending the month as usual.

This tradition was preserved in Catholic liturgy till 1969, when St. Matthias’ fourth-yearly leap came to an end. His feast was moved to May 14 so it could be celebrated outside of Lent and closer to the Solemnity of the Ascension.

Today, four of the many saints assigned for commemoration on the 28th of February are repeated on the 29th: St. Antonia of Florence, St. Augustus Chapdelaine, Pope St. Hilary, and St. Oswald of Worcester. However, these saints are no longer entered in the Universal Liturgical Calendar. Instead each day appears under the uninspiring title: “Lenten weekday.”

In the traditional Catholic calendar, Sts. Rimnus and Lupicinus were commemorated on Feb. 28. In Leap Year, when St. Matthias leapt, these two saints were commemorated on the 29th.

Leap Year Lore

It is traditional for a woman to propose marriage to her chosen man during Leap Year, a custom said to have begun with St. Bridget of Kildare in the fifth century. She complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose marriage. It is said that the good bishop granted her request but, preserving maidenly modesty, ruled that women were permitted to take the lead in proposing marriage on a single day — the last day of the shortest month.

Another popular tale is that, in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland — not to be confused with St. Margaret, Queen of Scots (died 1093) — by edict, fined men who turned down marriage proposals put by women on a Leap Year. This story is suspect since the 5 year-old Margaret was living in Norway in 1288. The tradition became popular during the Victorian Era.

The basis for this tradition may go back to the centuries when Feb. 29 wasn't recognized by English law. This is the probable basis for Feb. 29 being “Leap Day,” observance of the law “leaping” from Feb. 28 to March 1 in a “Leap Year.” Since the day was without legal status, it was just fine to break with convention and a woman could propose marriage.

Sadie Hawkins Day, when the unmarried hillbilly women of Dogpatch chase the men in town they want to marry, was created by Al Capp in his “Lil Abner” comic strip. It is often mistakenly supposed to take place on Leap Year Day, but is officially celebrated on Nov. 26.

Leap Year babies are known as “leaplings” or “leapers,” and the twin cities of Anthony, Texas, and Anthony, New Mexico, are the self-proclaimed Leap Year Capitals of the World. These cities hold a four-day Leap Year festival including a huge birthday party for all leaplings (who must show their ID).

Happy Leap Year, 2024!

Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to [email protected].


AOD-REC: April - Article Bottom