Celebrating A Leap Day Birth: What Are The Odds?

Paul J. Harrington was an original.

As a high school sophomore and my teammate at La Salle, he saved up his money to buy an expensive deerskin jacket and wore it religiously, as if it were a high priest’s surplice. Jay was a prolific spitballer. He would chew down whole sheets of loose leaf in religion class and toss moist projectiles at the classroom clock when Sister Mary Keane turned her back. He almost had the clock face obscured when she asked “whoever is doing that” to stop. Jay was tall and lean and, along with his cousins Peter and Fuzz (another Paul, but with a tangle of red hair), a good CYO basketball player.

He was born on February 29. What a surprise. Jay had defied the odds that the rest of us conformed to – about one in 1,500 – and arrived on the day that is added to the calendar every four years. Jay celebrated his birthday for two days during “common” years and for three days during “leap” years. He and Peter and Fuzz would barrel to school in a boat-sized Lincoln Continental, a haze trailing in their wake. It wasn’t always from the Marlboros they smoked. Occasionally, they’d pick me up as I walked to La Salle from my house in the neighborhood. I loved being teammates with the Harringtons.

The term “leap year” dates back to the 14th century and references how fixed festival days “leap” ahead an extra day during such a year. Leap years compensate for the fact that our common 365-day year is shorter than the actual solar year by almost six hours (five hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, to be exact). If a day weren’t inserted every four years, our calendar would slowly drift out of season. Christmas would creep toward autumn, the 4th of July toward spring. Through a combination of leap years and several exceptions – years that are evenly divisible by 100 are not leap years, unless they are also evenly divisible by 400 – we are able to keep phase with the seasons that our spinning planet brings.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jay’s practice of spreading his birthday celebration over several days is in full force with “leapers” today. The town of Anthony on the Texas-New Mexico border calls itself the “Leap Year Capital of the World” and welcomes as many as 10,000 people on the weekends that span February 29. This year, Disney is keeping its theme parks open around the clock on leap day.

But what about Lent? How do leapers reconcile their “party on, Garth” spirit with traditional Christian penitential practices? Not to worry. Lent always lasts for 40 days, omitting the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, when the season’s disciplines are relaxed. Turns out February 29 gets a pass, too. Call it a leap of faith.

Paul J. Harrington followed his own path in high school. While his cousins and I spent countless hours chasing schoolboy basketball glory in the tiny gym at La Salle, Jay did the unthinkable: he left the team. He didn’t like the pressure of the games, and he wanted to concentrate more on school. So he turned in the uniform that, in tryouts, more than a hundred kids had coveted. I admired his independence. Unconventional, yes. And true to the spirit of February 29.

Happy birthday, Jay, wherever you are.

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