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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The 2024 leap year reveals local traditions, celebrations and superstitions

Gainesville residents share beliefs, customs celebrating Feb. 29

Jazzlyn Harrell eagerly punched her number into the keypad in her elementary school lunch line over 20 years ago. More satisfying than the lunch she was served, she savored the ‘Happy birthday’ message that lit up on the screen. Unlike her classmates, she would have to wait another four years to see it again.

Harrell, now a 31-year-old Alachua County elementary school counselor, is a ‘leapling,’ a person born Feb. 29. For her, the date brings memories of both small delights and mild frustrations.

“I didn't understand why my birthday was not always on the calendar,” Harrell said. “It used to bother me as a kid and it stuck with me.”

While she said explaining her birthday to her students can sometimes be complicated, their reaction is worth the effort.

“I explain to them [my] birthday only came seven times,” she said. “And they [say], ‘What? So that means you're seven years old?’” 

But the confusion of Harrell’s students is incomparable to the gripes of submitting online forms, Jessica Hooley, a 43-year-old real estate director, said. She finds drop-down boxes for birthdays are perpetually unpredictable.

“Sometimes on online formats, [Facebook] won't even let you enter your birthday because it just gets confused,” Hooley said.

Naibi Mariñas, a UF associate instructional professor of astronomy, said the leap year is a mathematical tool implemented in 1582 to fix the calendar.

Earth’s orbit around the sun and the lunar cycle, she said, are not mathematically perfect and are out of sync with each other. So, the additional day is applied every four years to stop seasons from drifting and create a uniform system.

“Leap years happen only if you have a lunisolar calendar,” Mariñas said. “We're mixing the cycles of the moon with the cycles of the sun now.”

But far more eye-catching to Mariñas is the leap year calendar’s protection of religious holidays, she said.

“Leap years depend on the calendar you adopt, so it’s mostly a cultural thing,” Mariñas said. “It's interesting… to see how beliefs and society affect things like the calendar.”

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Similar to how different cultures follow different calendars, leap year traditions and superstitions vary across different countries. 

While many modern newspapers may be published daily or weekly, La Bougie du Sapeur, The Sapper’s Candle, makes newsstands every leap year. The French satirical paper will publish its 12th edition since 1980 Feb. 29.

Virginia "Frenchie" Bisiaux, a 51-year-old UF French senior discovered the newspaper in 1994. Born and raised in France, she remembers laughing about the paper’s “recent news” section.

“[The Sapper’s Candle] has a very loyal following,” Bisiaux said. “A lot of people pre-order their copies long-term in advance.”

As a girl scout in France, Bisiaux was taught good deeds done on Feb. 29 would be paid back four-fold to the giver and their family — and bad deeds 10-fold, she said. 

“The Chieftains were always saying how much more important it was to do an even better deed on [Feb. 29],” Bisiaux said. “I still think it is a special day.”

Right next door to France, in some regions of Germany, there is a leap year folk tradition connected to May Day, Willard Hasty, a UF professor of German and Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said.

In regular years, on the night of April 30, a man who loves a woman can declare his love by leaving a decorated Maypole (birch tree) in front of the house of his beloved. During a leap year, it is the woman’s turn, he said.

“If the three years of the guy placing the tree in front of the girls is like patriarchy, then maybe we have a year of matriarchy,” Hasty said. “It's like the one year where we turn it around.”

The German phrase, “Schaltjahr wird Kaltjahr,” translates to “A leap year will be a cold year.” Hasty said the saying is rooted in agricultural practices.

“If the [crops] end up not being that successful, you can say it was ‘Schaltjahr wird Kaltjahr,’ Hasty said. “There's a way in which it ends up being self-justifying, but that doesn't mean that it's meaningless.”

Like the German saying, Greek traditions hold that leap years symbolize bad luck, Chrysostomos Kostopoulos, a UF assistant instructional professor in the department of classics said.

“The phrase [leap year] for the Greeks either in songs or in verbal communication is always referring to something bad,”  Kostopoulos said. “It's bad luck, bad situation, bad things are happening.”

Gianna Fernandez, an 18-year-old UF computer engineering freshman, is the president of the Greek American Students Association at UF. Like many Greek people, her grandmother used to believe in leap year superstitions as a child, she said.

“Contrary to what the internet has published, [no Greeks] follow that tradition,” Fernandez said.

While some may have moved on from long-lived leap year superstitions, they remain relevant to others.

Gita Devi, an energy healer in Alachua, said she has recently noticed an energetic shift in many of her clients. 

“People have been very intuitive and synchronicities are really high,” she said. “People are [wanting] something, and then it suddenly [becomes true].”

Despite the energetic shift, Devi said she doesn’t believe in superstitions. Devi attributes the recent energy phenomenon to people’s thoughts and beliefs.

“If nobody knew about [the superstitions], they wouldn't know their marriage was having bad luck because of the leap year,” she said, “They would just think they’re having a bad marriage.” 

David Fuentes, a 39-year-old leapling and general manager of Top Shelf Interior Solutions, embraces many leap year traditions.

Born to traditional Catholics, he jokes about his father encouraging his mother to stall Fuentes’ birth because he believed it was bad luck. Later in life, Fuentes’ wife proposed to him 18 years ago on his birthday, inspired by the German tradition for a woman to do so. 

While Fuentes takes pride in his unique birthday, he said he appreciates the day regardless.

“Every day should be celebrated,” he said. “Because you don't know if today is the last day you get.”

Contact Molly Seghi at Follow her on X @molly_seghi.

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Molly Seghi

Molly Seghi is a first-year journalism major at UF and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When not writing or journaling, she can be found at a live music event or working on her podcast “An Aural Account.”

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