Every four years there's a presidential election in the United States. Here's what also happens every four years: we get an extra day in February.
These quadrennial years known as leap years just happen to coincide with election years. Oh joy; one more day to be subjected to campaign ads.
This extra day is called a leap day and is added to February because it's the shortest month of the year. The additional day is necessary in order to make our calendar year match up with the solar year.
It takes the Earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds to go around the sun, but the Gregorian calendar we use only contains 365 days. If we didn't add an extra day every fourth year, we would lose almost six hours a year. After 25 years our calendar would be off six days, and after a hundred years, we'd be off by 24 days.
Not every country uses the Gregorian calendar, though. Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia and Nepal have their own. Bangladesh, India and Israel use both the Gregorian and their own, and Taiwan, Thailand, North Korea and Japan use modified versions of the Gregorian calendar.
Because leap day is an every-four-year oddity, it's not surprising that superstitions, rituals and traditions have arisen around it. In Scotland it used to be considered unlucky to be born on leap day. In Greece segments of the population believe it's bad luck to get married not just on February 29, but the whole of leap year. It gets even more dire: Greek couples who separate and divorce during leap year allegedly will never find happiness again. Yikes!
On a brighter note, according to tradition it's permissible for women to propose to men on leap day. I've never understood why women have to wait for men to propose in the first place, but that's another story.
Irish legend claims that we have St. Brigid to thank for that window of opportunity. Born in the year 451, she supposedly complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait too long for marriage proposals, and he obliged by giving women one day to turn the tables and propose.
In some places leap day is known as Bachelors’ Day. Hypothetically, 1000 years after St. Brigid altered the rules, Margaret, Queen of Scotland, enacted a law that required any man who refused a marriage proposal from a woman on leap day to pay a penalty. In the upper classes, the reparation was purportedly a dozen pairs of gloves for the spurned woman to use to hide the embarrassment of not wearing a wedding or engagement ring.
We've never been asked to pursue recourse for nonpayment of 12 pairs of gloves, but if a statute exists supporting the claim, we'd be game to try. Happy leap day.