The Weird World of Leap Year Babies

From online honor societies to battles with Toys R Us and leap year deniers, the lives of leaplings are filled with strange and unexpected joys. At least, ones that only come around once every four years.

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Feb 29 2016, 2:00pm

Photo by Guille Faingold via Stocksy

This year, I am not going to fake my birthday. I am not going to do what I usually do and tell all my loved ones that a day I have randomly selected is going to serve as my birthday. I'm not going to send out reminders—"don't forget, Tuesday is my birthday"—and I'm not going to be disappointed when unsurprisingly, people become confused and forget. That's because this year is a leap year, and I am a leapling.

While most of us believe that a year comprises of 365 days, that's not quite technically true. In fact, it takes the Earth exactly 365.24219 days to orbit the sun, so an extra day is added every four years to make up for it.Leaplings are people born on the rarest day in the calendar: February 29.

Sometimes we call ourselves leapers, or LDBs (Leap Day Babies). We get a 'real' birthday every four years and we make it up for the other three. Hardcore leaplings choose not to celebrate, but most choose between February 28 or March 1, hoping that they've picked the day that Facebook is going to display it too—you'd be surprised how much you miss waking up to a full wall of polite Happy Birthdays when you don't get it.

Not that it matters much these days; leap days are also when many women choose to propose to their partners. So if you're a woman between 18 and 44, chances are your one long-awaited birthday is going to play second fiddle to a bunch of "He said yes!' photos, because nothing says 'HBD!' like an outdated sexist tradition alive and well.

These are just some of the little quirks —the frustrating inconveniences and the comical oversights—that are discussed online in the leapling members community, the Honor Society of Leap Year Day Babies. HSLYDB was set up back in 1997 and at present has over 10,000 leapling members from across the world. For most, it's a chance to swap leaper tales and meet others in your area. It offers a space for LDBs to learn more about the weird superstitions and traditions that have marked the leap days around the world, and to indulge in a bit of shared narrative.

It's an opportunity to take a quiet pride in being one of those "What were the chances!" births (1 chance in 1461, to be precise). And it's a great place to complain. One user born in 1952 claims that her elderly doctor tried to falsify her birth certificate because he considered it bad luck to be born on a leap day; another leaper says that the troublesome birth date kept crashing his bank's computers when they tried to update his account.

"Leap year deniers claim February 29 is an invalid date," HSLYDB co-founder and fellow leapling Pete Brouwer told Reuters back in 2012, the year of the last leap day. He's talking about technological troubles that leapers face from having a birthday that has existed for thousands of years, but seems to have been forgotten from computer code.

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Most leaplings will have a tech story. Mine is that for a long time my driving license and passport had two different birthdays (DVLA went with February 28) which meant on the rare occasions I needed to provide two forms of ID—for a lease or to rent a car—I couldn't. It was a fight to get served alcohol on my 18th birthday and while it's always a great conversation starter, it's maybe not so great at the immigration checkpoint.

Brouwer made headlines back in 2008 when he released some free software via HSLYDB that allowed leapers to purchase products online for a leap day. Prior to that, many websites wouldn't list February 29 as an option even if the leap day existed. It was created primarily to get around the website of Toys R Us.

"How do you explain to a child that they won't get a birthday card this year?" That's Raenell Dawn, the other leapling founder of HSLYDB and the champion of the Leap Day Awareness campaign, which seeks to get better recognition of the February 29. The movement began picking up steam toward the end of the 00s. Previously she'd lobbied calendar companies to officially designate the 29th as a leap day, and asked several US presidents for it to be marked as a public holiday.

Eventually Toys R Us fixed the glitch. It's a small victory but it's not without significance, especially where children are concerned. Indeed, that's the other heavily discussed topic online: feeling different or special as a child (a bunch of us would have been featured in the local newspaper, for example) and carrying that with you to adulthood.

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"We're a chronological anomaly," Brouwer tells Broadly. For a lot of people, birthdays are a marker of passing time—it's why so many get depressed around their birthday. If you're a leapling, birthdays lose their significance. The downside of this is where milestone birthdays are concerned. 18, 21, 30—none of these will be leap years and so may not have the desired impact. But the huge upside of this is the freedom from time's tyranny.

Most leaplings will jokingly say their real age is their leap age (their age divided by four) and, if comments on the Leap Year forums are to be believed, feel a genuine sense of youthfulness even into old age. "26 @ 104!" says Lera from Virginia, or Jo from Cali: "My most memorably [sic] birthday was my 21st (84 years old) birthday. My grand daughter Vicky, took me out for my first LEGAL drink."

This is what Brouwer calls "Leap Day Consciousness": a higher—or at the very least, different—sense of space and time because of your birthday. "You can only be aware of what you have experienced, and so most people haven't a clue what it's like to be born on Feb 29. I believe this affects us in another way: the theme that we are 'forever young' resonates with many people. A birthday for us is, 'Finally, it's here,' for most other people it's, 'Oh no, not another one already!'"

Online, it's easy to see what Pete is saying. "I've never met another [leapling];" "I want to meet another"—these are the refrains repeated on the forum. clearly there is a sense among leapers of difference, and a desire to share that uniqueness. You might be tempted to dismiss Dawn and Brouwer for perhaps taking this too seriously, but in Pete's own words: "Our work is done."

If there was a crusade, its finished now—technology has caught up as best its can. Facebook has finally homogenized its protocol so leapling birthdays always show up on the 28thin non-leap years, and any major retailer has probably got the correct software. Yet the very creation of HSLYDB has made sure that this little quirk of time will be remembered, even when modernity has ironed out all the creases. Where else can you find 16 year olds talking freely with 84 year old strangers?

Today, I am seven years old (28) and I've already jumped on the bed, sent Ja Rule a Happy Birthday tweet (like me, he's a leaper), and woken the entire neighborhood up with loud singing. This is an event, a huge event, and there are at least 10,000 others who know it.