A Curious Can of Worms
I did something a few days ago that I only do every four years: I sent a birthday card to my friend, Alice, who was born on February 29th - a leap day. Of course it was tempting to send her a 'Happy 8th Birthday' card. But I refrained from such a childish joke and instead congratulated her on reaching the ripe old age of 32. I did, however, ask Alice on what day she celebrates her birthday on 'normal' non-leap years: Feb 28th or March 1st. Her surprising answer was she celebrates on both days. She says it's much more fun that way because she can celebrate with friends on one day and family on another. Curious about this greedy approach to birthday celebrations I checked out a couple of websites and found that this is a hot topic for leap year children. Some folk are adamant that the correct day of celebration is the last day of February - whatever the year. Leap-day children are born in February and should mark their birthday in that month. That was their strong opinion. Other folks posted that you couldn't be expected to celebrate your birthday on February 28th because that would be one day too early - so March 1st was the correct day for them. What a can of worms! I can see now why Alice cuts through the whole argument and celebrates both days equally.
So why is it that we add an extra day to our calendar almost every four years? The answer -as you probably know - is that the Earth doesn't take exactly 365 days to orbit the sun. It's actually closer to 365.242 days. Over the long run, those six extra hours do add up. The end result would be our calendar would fall out of sync with the weather. 100 years down the line, our calendar would be 24 days off and we'd soon have warm, sunny Decembers and snow in July.
Ancient civilizations knew all about this - after all harvests, rituals and celebrations were all linked to specific days on the calendar. Some handled it in a rather clumsy way by adding a whole month to certain years. But you may be surprised to learn that it was the Roman leader Julius Caesar who introduced the idea of an extra day every four years. And that was back in the first century BC. His plan wasn't perfect. It seems that an adding a day every four years doesn't quite work in the long run. It results in an extra day every 128 years! Pope Gregory XIII solved this problem back in 1582 by creating some simple rules that we use to this day:
To be a leap year, the year must be divisibly by four;
Any year that is divisible by 100 is not a leap year - unless it is also divisible by 400.
How many people do you know who were born on a leap day? I only know Alice, but the Henriksen family from Andenes, Norway are holders of the Guinness World Record for 'The greatest number of children born on February 29.' Mrs. Karin Henriksen gave birth to three children in consecutive leap years. Her daughter Heidi in 1960 and her sons Olav and Leif-Martin in 1964 and 1968, respectively. Amazingly they were all born on February 29. The odds of that happening are .... well, you get the idea.
And the Guinness World Records notes that the Keogh family is unique in managing to produce three consecutive generations born on February 29. Peter Anthony was born in Ireland on February 29, 1940, while his son Peter Eric was born on the leap day in 1964. The granddaughter, Bethany Wealth, in turn, made her appearance on February 29, 1996.
According to The Honor Society for Leap Year Day Babies there are some 200,000 'leapers' in the U.S. and just fewer than 5 million globally. As I said, a leap year looks like a rather big joke that gets played on these 'leapers' every four years, but it is no laughing matter. Look up the controversial topic of leap seconds and you'll find a big international argument brewing away - with countries like the U.S.A., Japan, Mexico and France on one side of the fence and the U.K., Germany and Canada on the other. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16625614 ].
For more fun world records that can be used in the English language classroom, see Guinness World Records: Reading 1, 2, & 3 and Guinness World Records 1 & 2 by Macmillan LanguageHouse.
* Alice has reached the ripe old age of 32. = usually used for much older ages e.g. My grandfather died at the ripe old age of 94.
* I checked out some websites. = to take notice of, to evaluate
e.g. Check out this new music magazine. It has some great articles.
* a hot topic for leap year children = a much talked about subject when not everyone has the same opinion
e.g. The new offside rules in soccer are a hot topic.
What a can of worms! = to open a can of worms is to introduce a topic that people argue about.
e.g. The politician opened a can of worms when she said that drunken drivers should go to prison.
The odds of that happening are high / low. = the chances
e.g. The odds of France winning the soccer World Cup are high.
No laughing matter. = It's not as funny as some people may think.
e.g. My accident was no laughing matter. Because I missed a day's work, I couldn't finish the report and I lost my job.