This year, February 29 falls on a Saturday -- the perfect time for a party.
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It comes once every four years, but how does one mark the occasion? Since the reign of Julius Caesar, the Western calendar has had an extra day in a “leap year” to correct for the peculiar fact that the earth revolves around the sun approximately 365¼ times each calendric year. February 29 is the “leap day” on our modern calendar for the correction, and this year it falls on the ideal shindig time of Saturday.
One way to observe the day is by honoring a saintly feast. A Russian folktale explains how one unfortunate saint got tagged with leap day. A peasant’s cart had become mired in mud when St. John Cassian passed by. The peasant asked for help, but the holy scholar declined because it would soil his heavenly robes. St. Nicholas (the future Santa Claus) then passed by and immediately leapt to the man’s aid. After Cassian and Nicholas returned to heaven, God noticed that the latter’s robes were caked in mud. Rather than be upset, He gave Nicholas two feasts a year (December 6 and May 9) and assigned Cassian February 29.
St. Cassian would have fared better on the calendar of the Romans, who liked to number some days by counting backwards from the end of the month (and you thought Roman numerals were weird). The Romans also inserted their leap day on February 24 and doubled it. Since February 24 was the “sixth day” (sextum) from the end of the month, a leap year had two “sixth days.” From this peculiarity comes one of our only other English words for a leap year: “bissextile” or “two sixth days.”
The Catholic Church used to follow the old Roman calendar, and so the saint for February 28, St. Romanus of Condat, had his feast day bumped to February 29 during a leap year. Romanus was an interesting fellow. At the age of 35 he became a hermit in the Jura Mountains of France. His blissful solitude did not last long, however, for his younger brother, St. Lupicinus, soon joined him, followed by other aspiring monks. Romanus ended up founding several monasteries throughout France and Switzerland and is famous for healing two lepers by embracing them. Today, “Saint-Romain” is an appellation for red and white wines produced around the village of Saint-Romain in the region of Burgundy, and the French vintners consider his feast day to have prophetic powers, which they enshrined in the following ditty:
If on St. Roman’s the sun doth shine, Then you’ll have much fine good wine.
Behold your first item for leap day refreshments. As for something stronger, the famous mixologist Harry Craddock invented the Leap Year cocktail for a celebration at London’s Savoy Hotel on February 29, 1928. Admittedly, the drink is on the sweeter and almost cloying side, perhaps in order to pander to the female palate of the day. Leap days in Ireland and Britain are occasions in which it is socially acceptable for women to propose to men, and we can imagine Craddock providing a syrupy bracer to steel a maiden’s courage as she dropped to one knee. This much we know: less than two years after inventing it, Craddock was boasting that his Leap Year was “responsible for more proposals than any other cocktail that has ever been mixed.”
Craddock’s recipe calls for only a dash of lemon juice, but unless you like your liquor to taste like Grandma’s candy dish, we recommend bolstering that amount to half an ounce.
2 oz. gin
½ oz. Grand Marnier
½ oz. sweet vermouth
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
Pour all ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake 40 times. Strain into a cocktail glass.
Finally, it’s not a cocktail party without trivia that becomes more interesting (or irritating) with each additional round. At your leap day party, casually work in the following tidbits:
Before Julius Caesar invented the leap day, the Romans had to add a leap month in order to realign their calendar with the tropical year. The Chinese calendar does the same seven times every 19 years.
The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) had a word for the period from leap year to leap year, when the sun returns to the same position as before—a lustrum.
A person born on February 29 is a leapling. In most countries, February 28 is the legal birthday of a leapling in non–leap years. But apparently not on the high seas: in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Pirates of Penzance, poor Freddy is a leapling who discovers that he must remain apprenticed to pirates until his 21st birthday, that is, until he is 88 years old.
In those localities where a woman may propose to a man on leap day or during a leap year, if the man declines, he is expected to pay some sort of fine. In Finland, it is money to buy fabric for a new skirt.
Not everyone thinks that romance and leap years are a good match. In Greece, it is bad luck to get married in a bissextile year.
Michael P. Foley, Ph.D., is a professor in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University, and is the bestselling author of Drinking with Your PatronSaints (Regnery, 2020), Drinking with Saint Nick (Regnery, 2018), Drinking with the Saints (Regnery, 2015), and the Politically Incorrect Guide to Christianity (Regnery, 2017).