leap year


The month of February in Poor Robin Almanack for 1796 (Sundays, Christian festivals and saints’ days are marked in red.)

The month of February in Poor Robin Almanack for 1796 (Sundays, Christian festivals and saints’ days are marked in red.)






a year, occurring once every four years, which has 366 days including 29th February as an intercalary day





The name leap year refers to the fact that in the bissextile year any fixed festival after February falls on the next week-day but one to that on which it fell in the preceding year, not on the next week-day as usual. (For example, Christmas day is on a Wednesday in 2013, on a Thursday in 2014, on a Friday in 2015, but on a Sunday in 2016, which is a leap year.) This was explained by Henry Care (1646-88) in The Jewish calendar explained; or, Observations on the ancient Hebrew account, of the year, months, and festivals used by the patriarchs, and mentioned in Holy Scripture (1674):

The Roman Year, according to Julius Cæsar’s Constitution, did consist of three hundred sixty five days, and six hours; which six odd hours, making in four Years a whole day, is then added, and makes that which we call Leap-Year, so named, because by this interposition of a day at the 25th of February¹, and repeating the same Letter² twice, the fixed Festivals or Holydays, and the like, do as it were leap one day further into the week, than they were the former Year.

¹ An intercalary day was inserted by the Julian calendar every fourth year after the sixth day before the calends of March, or 24th February.

² On a Church calendar, the days are marked either in black letters or, for the festivals and saints’ days, in red letters.

The Julian calendar was the calendar introduced by the authority of Julius Caesar in 46 BC, in which the year consisted of 365 days, every fourth year having 366 days. It was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, though it is still used by some Orthodox Churches. Dates in the Julian calendar are sometimes designated ‘Old Style’. The Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. To bring the calendar back into line with the solar year, 10 days were suppressed, and centenary years were only made leap years if they were divisible by 400. Scotland adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1600, but England and Wales did not follow suit until 1752 (by which time 11 days had to be suppressed). At the same time New Year’s Day was changed from 25th March to 1st January, and dates using the new calendar were designated ‘New Style’.

In The Journal to Stella, consisting of letters to his friend, Esther Johnson, whom he called Stella and whom he may have secretly married, the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote, on 29th February 1712, that some people were confused (St David’s day is on 1st March):

This is leap year, and this is leap day; prince George was born on this day. People are mistaken; and some here think it is St. David’s day, but they do not understand the virtue of leap year.

The custom that in leap years it should be the women who make the advances dates back at least to Elizabethan times. In the anonymous comedy The maydes metamorphosis (1600), Ascanio, a young noble, explains to Aramanthus, a hermit who can reveal hidden truths, that he has not seen the woman he loves, Eurymine, for three days. Ascanio does not know that she has been transformed into a boy by Apollo (Joculo is Ascanio’s jester):

– Aramanthus: Whom you affect so much, is but a Boy.
– Ascanio: I loue a Boy?
– Aramanthus: Mine Art doth tell me so.
– Ascanio: Adde not a fresh increase vnto my woe.
– Aramanthus: I dare auouch what lately I haue saide,
The loue that troubles you, is for no maide.
– Joculo: Maister be contented, this is leape yeare.
Women weare breetches, petticoats are deare.
And thats his meaning, on my life it is.

Another allusion to this custom is found in A treatise against judiciall astrologie (1601), by the Church of England clergyman and author John Chamber (1546-1604)—there is a play on the double sense of knave, that is, rogue and young man:

If the nature of anything change in the leap-year, it seemeth to be true in men and women, according to the answer of a mad fellow to his mistress, who, being called knave by her, replied that it was not possible, ‘for’, said he, ‘if you remember yourself, good mistress, this is leap-year, and then, as you know well, knaves wear smocks’.

Poor Robin Almanackfor the Year of our Lord, 1796. Being the One Hundred and Thirty-fourth Edition, Bissextile, or Leap Year, And the Forty-fourth Year of the New Stile in Great-Britain” had the following for the month of February:

This is Leap Year, when people say
If lads not court the lasses may,
And sure they’ll not forget,
But every damsel brown or fair
Will now strive sweethearts to ensnare,
Like fishes in a net.

For the month of August, the same almanac had:

I therefore make this mighty bother
About leap year because another
In haste will not be here,
For the year eighteen hundred, tho’
You may not now this mystery know,
Will prove a common year.
Take then the good advice I give
You’ll be much older if you live,
How dangerous is delay!
For if you should let slip the time
Of matching till you’re past your prime,
Repent too late you may.
’Twill eighteen hundred be and four
Before another comes, therefore
I pray make much of this;
For you will eight years older be,
Ere you another leap year see,
So don’t good husbands miss.
Girls from thirteen to five and twenty,
All ye who now have sweethearts plenty,
Strike now, for now’s the time,
And don’t stand shilly-shally when
You may have choice of gentlemen,
Till you are past your prime.

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