Nancy Lucas  /  Leapyeardayproject.com
A Leap Year frog, illustrated by Nancy Lucas for the Leap Year Day Project, delivers a baby on Feb. 29, the stork's one day off in four years.
By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/1/2004 2:19:39 PM ET 2004-03-01T19:19:39

In a society so short on time, it seems like people would embrace an extra day on the calendar as cause for festivity. And it once did, but somewhere along the line, celebrating Leap Year Day -- the Feb. 29 that only comes around once every four years -- lost its popular appeal.

In spite of its demise, however, Leap Year Day still has a subculture of die-hard adherents who are doing their level best to put it on the festivities calendar, and in public awareness, or at least capitalize on its novelty.

Leap capital
At the core of this modest movement are, not too surprisingly, Leap Year Day babies -- people like Mary Ann Brown of Anthony, Texas, who is responsible for putting her home town on the map as Leap Year Capital of the World.

Anthony, population 3,850, which launched the festival in 1988, now manages to draw about 1,000 tourists for its once-in-four-years celebration -- that includes as many as 70 Leap Year Day babies plus friends, family and “leapophiles” for a weekend-long festival.

It kicked off Thursday with a golf tournament and nature hike, a 5K run, a barbecue at a local pecan farm, and wine tasting. The events are slated to keep on coming until the big day, Sunday, marked by a chuckwagon breakfast, balloon rides, and a parade.

All in all, it’s no Mardi Gras, but nonetheless does draw folks from around the country. Lori Mayer, who is “12, going on 13” in Leap years, makes the trek from her home in New Hampshire every four years to celebrate her birthday, and now volunteers for the festival.

The culmination of the event is on Sunday night -- a birthday dinner for leap babies and their families, topped off by a “huge, huge cake,” said Mayer, speaking from her volunteer position manning festival phones in Anthony. How big? Four years ago it would have covered two buffet tables, she says. "But they couldn’t get it out of the kitchen.”

Leaper awareness
Meanwhile in Keizer, Oregon is another Leap baby, hard at work promoting Feb. 29 for fun, profit, and fairness. Raenell Dawn who started advocating Leap Day awareness in the late 1980s, is now a full-time activist for her cause. She cofounded an Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies, which now has 4,700 members, edits the online LEAPzine newsletter for members,  hosts the World Leap Year Festival site, and runs an online LeapZeum featuring Leap Year memorabilia dating to the 1800s.

Her site also allows Leap Year babies around the country set up meetings with other Leapers in their areas.

But the main mission of her Leap Year Project is to get major calendar companies to put "Leap Year Day" on their calendars -- it's only fair, she says, since Groundhog's Day cleared the bar -- and ultimately, making Leap Year Day a worldwide holiday.

Leap Year Day should be celebrated because "it represents balance, harmony and order in the world. It keeps the calendar balanced with the earth, keeps everything in order," says Dawn.

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The reason for the extra day every four years is to rectify the calendar and the actual time it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun -- which is 365.24219 days, not an even 365. In a series of moves by Julius Caesar (45 BC), Caesar Augustus (4 AD) and Pope Gregory XIII (1583), an extra day was added every four years and ultimately landed at the end of February. Most of the world now uses what is known as the Gregorian calendar.

Dawn's awareness campaign has practical implications for people who, like Dawn, were born on a Feb. 29. For instance, she says, in applying for a driver's license, she encountered government workers who tried to tell her there was no Feb. 29. Even when the manager conceded that the date does exist, he told her she would have to choose Feb. 28 or March 1 as her birth date, or the computer would get confused.

Dawn says doctors and nurses in maternity wards regularly "fix" birth certificates of babies born on Feb. 29 so they won't have to grow up with a Leap Year Day dilemma. Some of her Leap Year Day Babies honor society members, now adults, are trying to fix their "fixed" birth certificates.

Room for revival?
There was a time when the holiday was much more commonly celebrated. As recently as the early 1900s, there were concerts and balls held throughout the Leap years. And as a special bonus to women of the time, there was the “right” (sanctioned by Queen Victoria) to propose marriage to a man, or at least ask him to dance. If the man declined to marry, there was at least a consolation prize -- he was supposed to provide a silk dress and a kiss on the cheek.

Corticelli Co  /  Leapyeardayproject.com
A turn of the century ad for silk thread shows "The perils of Leap Year," when, by tradition, women were allowed to propose marriage to men.
This tradition may trace to the 1200s, when a woman had the law backing her intention to propose during a Leap Year in some parts of Europe. She was required, however, to wear a red petticoat that showed beneath her skirts, "to give men the opportunity to run the other way," says Sharman Robertson, archivist at Hallmark Cards.

Leap Year Day "used to be recognized in everyday things, in advertising and games and books. People were aware of it. Even the Almanacs would mark it, tell people to prepare for the extra day," says Dawn.

Somewhere along the way, the holiday lost its popular appeal.

As a measure of its lowly status now, Hallmark shipped exactly one Leap Year card design this year to gift stores throughout America. The card sold about 35,000 copies -- hardy a blip compared to the Valentine’s Day bonanza for Hallmark and other companies.

“There’s not a huge market,” concedes Rachel Bolton, spokesman for Hallmark, but she says the company always “hopes always to have the right card for the right situation.”

If only for practical reasons, a Leap Year revival would require interest beyond the circle of Leap Day babies. After all, there are only about 4 million of them in the entire world, and the ratio seems unlikely to rise. Chances of being born on Feb. 29 are 1-in-1,461.

Dawn insists her effort is not just aimed at Leap babies. "For too many Leap years, I was getting accused of (the campaign as) being all about me, and it’s not."

That is changing, she says. "The more honor society members we get, the more of their family and friends join in. They're realizing it's their extra day too... I feel sometimes that I’m gathering my little Leap army."

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