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Happy birthday at last Posted On 28 February 2020

It’s a leap year, when every four years we get an extra day in February. But what does that mean, particularly for those born on February 29?

The celebrated English actor Joss Ackland, who has appeared in more than 130 film and TV roles, is 23 tomorrow.

Darren Ambrose, the former Colchester United, Ipswich Town and Newcastle United footballer, made his England under-21s debut at the tender age of five.

And Superman hasn’t had his 21st birthday yet*. Yes, you read that right. Joss Ackland is 23. But hasn’t he made a career of playing grizzled old blokes in films such as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy on TV? We know you can do wonders with make-up and prosthetics but, even so…

And Darren Ambrose doesn’t strike you as a child prodigy either. As for Superman, well it must be something to do with Earth’s atmosphere…

Actually, it’s much simpler. They are all leaplings, leapers or leapsters – leap year babies born on February 29th who only get to celebrate their official birthday every four years.

It is estimated there are almost five million of them across the globe, with the chances of being born on that day one in 1,461. However, Norwegian mum Karin Henriksen might have something to say about that – she gave birth to her children Heidi, Olav and Leif-Martin on consecutive Leap Days, while Irishman Peter Keogh (1940), his son Eric (1964) and granddaughter Bethany (1996) were all born on February 29th.

Not only that, for centuries astrologers believed babies born on that rare day were endowed with unusual talents, unique personalities and even special powers. Well, that accounts for Superman!

But what is a leap year and why do we have them?  Well, prepare to be confused. Leap years come every four years but are skipped every centennial year (1800, 1900 etc), but not 2000 as it can also be divided by four, although according to the Gregorian calendar, the most widely used across the planet, we still kept the extra day. We need them to counter-balance time. The Gregorian calendar measures a year at 365 days, the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. But because this orbit takes 365.24 days, an extra day is added to the shortest month every four years to keep our seasons synchronised with the solar calendar.

If this didn’t happen, in 750 years or so, June would be in the middle of winter.

All of which probably means very little to someone who needs to decide when their new-born celebrates their ‘unofficial’ birthday in the intervening years.

It used to be that a baby born before noon on February 29th could celebrate their ‘unofficial’ birthday on February 28th, while after that it was March 1st. But, like the tradition of women being able to propose on Leap Year Day, that went the way of the dodo when legislation in the United Kingdom was introduced to say when a leapling (or leaper or leapster) turns 18, their birthday has to be on March 1st.

*Technically Superman has two birthdays – his Earth birthday was on April 18th, 1938 when he first appeared in print, but he was actually born on February 29th two years previously on Krypton. Joss Ackland was born in 1928 and Darren Ambrose 1984.

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