The origins of leap year

Born February 29, 1972, Nathan Keech will turn 52 this year, or 13 in leap years. 

"I joke and say I either age really well or really poorly, depending on how you look at it," says Keech.

He didn’t realize his birthday didn't exist on the calendar most years until he was about to turn 8.

"Even my mom said yeah, you only have a birthday every four years. I thought, really?"

For a full explanation, we visited the observatory on a rooftop at Macalester College. Astronomy professor Anna Williams reminds us that the leap year comes around every four years because technically, it doesn't take 365 days for the Earth to orbit the sun. It actually takes about 365 days, 5 hours, and 48 minutes.

"In order to not have the seasons creep into different parts of the calendar year we have to add in an extra day," says Williams. "We have to add an extra day every four years to make up for this distance and our calendar year."

Basically, it prevents winter from ending up in July.

So why is Leap Day added to the end of February? For that, we can thank Julius Caesar for wanting a more consistent calendar. After plenty of manipulation of calendars in ancient times, a 10-month calendar eventually transformed into the 12-month Julian calendar. January and February were added to the end because back then the beginning of the year was March 1, when spring seasonal work got underway.

"February was one of those months where, before Julius Caesar, they would add time or take away extra time to make sure spring was happening at the beginning of March," says Williams. "It was a natural transition to continue to mess with February compared to the other month."

Still, the Julian Calendar wasn't perfect because, eventually, that extra day added too much. Pope Gregory XIII and his mathematicians stepped in creating the Gregorian Calendar we know today, which includes leap years every four years except on century years that are not divisible by four.  

Follow all that? 

Any mathematical confusion aside, the fascination with leap years has been depicted on the big screen and dates back to the fifth century. While some are superstitious that Feb. 29 is an unlucky date to get married, Irish tradition encourages women to propose to men on this bonus day on the calendar. 

There are plenty of famous leaplings celebrating birthdays, including Prime Minister of Spain Pedro Sánchez, former Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, and according to Time Magazine in 1988… Superman. While he’s in good company Keech says being born on leap day does have occasional complications.. usually when filling out various paperwork.

"Sometimes I have to be close enough to just punch in 28th," says Keech. "Which is not lying, this is all they gave me."

Overall, Keech embraces the uniqueness associated with being a leap-year baby. His mother loved having a baby born on Leap Day. A former teacher surprised him with a Feb. 29 class birthday party, but more recently it’s Keech’s wife who takes the cake. She threw Keech a train-themed party for his 40th, aka his 10th birthday. 

"It’s fun to celebrate," says Keech. "Every four years you’ve got to live it up a little bit."