Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Malcolm celebrates his 14th birthday this month. Like many his age, he loves gadgets, electronic games and The Simpsons. He also happens to be minister of St. Mungo’s church, Balerno.
How can this be? Malcolm’s birthday is on 29th February and only appears once every four years. This is why he can enjoy a teen birthday later in life than the rest of us.
I visit Malcolm at his office in the Ministry Centre in Balerno. Inside, hundreds of books compete for space with Dr Who memorabilia, light sabres and daleks.
“I love these!” he says, picking up a dalek. “My wife, Sue, often buys me presents appropriate to my leap year age. This one is remote controlled, and I have great fun sending it out of my office to greet new unsuspecting members of staff. Last birthday, when I was 13, Sue bought me a Wii and some games to go with it. But I had to ask a real 13 year old to get me started!”
The chances of having a leap year birthday are around 1 in 1,500. But what if your sibling has a leap year birthday too?
“My sister, Shelagh, is four years older than me. She was also born on the 29th February. It caused quite a stir when we were little. There was an article about us both in the local press, and a picture of my sister holding me. She’s 15 this year. ”
Are there disadvantages to having a leap year birthday?
“No, not really. Our special birthdays are exciting, of course. Other years, I celebrate on the 28th February, and Shelagh on the 1st March. And these days, because I get fewer chances than most to celebrate real birthdays, Sue loves to mark the occasion properly. I couldn’t ignore my special day, even if I wanted to! And old friends tend to remember me on leap years, so I’ll often get a cluster of ‘Happy Birthday’ phone calls, which is nice.”
He does have one regret, however.
“Yes”, he sighs, “my sister and I always secretly hoped our birthdays would qualify us for a Blue Peter Badge. Sadly, it never happened. Maybe we were just not quite unusual enough.”
In fact, the odds suggest that Malcolm could well be the only man in Scotland to share a leap year birthday with a sibling (other than twins). However, in 1988, the family climbed to new heights of improbability. Malcolm and Sue were planning their move to Balerno, where Malcolm would begin his post as minister of St. Mungo’s Church.
“Sue was expecting our second child, and our daughter Joanna arrived, you’ve guessed it – on 29th February!”
They were, of course, delighted, and the family take great pleasure in their very special joint celebrations. There is a good chance they are the only family in the UK with three separate leap year birthdays in two generations. That surely qualifies them for a Blue Peter badge!
Many happy returns to Malcolm, his sister Shelagh, and daughter Joanna this month. And many happy returns to any other Konect readers who share this special birthday. We’d love to hear from you!
What is a leap year?
Earth takes approximately 365 and a quarter days to go around the sun, but we usually count just 365 days. Every fourth year we add an extra day to keep up with what is actually happening, and this is known as a leap year. Julius Caesar and his advisers worked the idea out in 45 BC, and incorporated leap years into their Julian calendar. The rule is: leap years must always be divisible by four (like 2012).
But, more accurately, a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds – 11 minutes under a quarter day. This may not seem a significant length of time, but ignore those 11 minutes, and slowly but surely, the months begin to slide away from their appropriate seasons at a rate of about three days every four centuries.
Julius Caesar’s calendar worked pretty well for a while, but it wasn’t quite accurate enough, and by the time Pope Gregory XIII ruled the Holy Roman Empire in 1582, Easter Day had been gradually working its way backwards towards winter. Also, the Spring equinox (equal length day and night) was appearing on March 11th, about 10 days earlier than today, which really didn’t suit Pope Gregory.
He worked out that omitting the leap year three times in every four centuries would solve the problem. It did, and we still use his Gregorian calendar today. So now, as well as the ‘divisible by four’ rule, every new century leap year must be divisible by 400, in order to discard a few. This explains why 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1900 wasn’t, and nor will be 2100.
Published in Konect February 2012
Author: Emma Merchant