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Why do We Have Leap Years?

Diana Bocco
Updated May 23, 2024
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A leap year, also known as an intercalary year, is the one containing an extra day, normally February 29th, although this varies in certain calendars. In the Gregorian Calendar, which is used by most of the world, a leap year occurs every four years or 97 years out of every 400. This is done as a way to keep seasons, astronomical events, and time differences in sync. Without intercalary years, the Gregorian calendar would lose veracity in just over a hundred years, leading to time differences between day and night, and moving the equinox early.

The Gregorian method adds a 29th day in all years divisible by 4 except for years that end in -00, like 1900 or 2100, the extra day is not added. However, there is one more exception to the exception: for years ending in -00 that can be divided by 400, the extra day is added. The years 1600 and 2000, for example were leap years, as 2400 will be. This approach makes the Gregorian method the most accurate way to create intercalary years, allowing it to fall behind only one day every 8,000 years.

Other calendars don’t do such a good job of creating leap years. Examples of that are the Julian and the Coptic calendar, which create intercalary years by simply adding an extra day every four years, regardless of any other consideration. This method, which was in common use until a few centuries ago, would push the calendar a day forward every 130 years.

The Hebrew calendar, which is lunisolar, adds an extra month rather than an extra day, to form a leap year. This is done by using a complicated rule, creating seven intercalary years every nineteen. Because the first day of the Hebrew year cannot fall on Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday, the rules adjust depending on the year, so it’s hard to estimate when a leap year will come. Other calendars that add leap days include the Indian National Calendar (extra day in February/March), the Hindu Calendar (an extra month, added when two dark moons occur), and the Chinese Calendar (an extra month added using a complicated lunar system).

There are several traditions and superstitions based on intercalary years. An old Irish legend says that women are only allowed to propose marriage on leap years; men must take the initiative any other time. Other traditions considered February 19th an unlucky day in which new enterprises, trips, and partnerships should not be started. People who are born on leap years usually celebrate their birthdays on 28th February, which is usually considered their legal birthday.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By widget2010 — On Jan 04, 2011

@aaaCookie, I used to wonder that too. One of the hardest things for me to understand when I was a kid was why a month was interchangeably referred to as "four weeks" when even I knew four weeks was28 days, and most months are 30 or 31; I didn't get what we were supposed to do with the "extra" days. I wonder how long it takes kids to figure these things out who are born on the 29th of February, especially since your "birthday" doesn't happen every year.

By aaaCookie — On Jan 03, 2011

When I was younger, I really had no concept of the point of a leap year. I think for some time I actually believed that some years had an extra day in February, the 29th, so that it would have closer the same number of days in the month as the other months of the year; I also didn't understand why different months had different numbers of days, although I admit I still really don't understand that.

By malena — On Feb 01, 2008

The Islamic Calendar, also known as the Muslim Calendar or Hijri Calendar, also has leap years. Its a lunar calendar and has 11 leap years within a 30 year period...that makes it a little more frequent than once every 3 years.

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
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