Leap Year Day: Trickstering and Proposing

Leap Year Day is when Christopher Columbus hoodwinked Jamaican Native peoples during a lunar eclipse, and other trivia

It’s Leap Year Day, February 29, giving some people an elusive birthday and others the chance to ask their beau for a ring.

In strictly indigenous terms it does not mean much, though on this day in 1504 Christopher Columbus reportedly convinced Native peoples in Jamaica to continue supplying his team with provisions by using his knowledge of an impending lunar eclipse.

In clinical terms, it’s the “intercalary of the bissextile year,” as the Staten Island Advance reports. (For those who have been perusing stories on the potentially vagina-like sculpture in Wasilla, Alaska, and the “little horny man,” that’s bissextile, as in the astrological term for one-sixth of a circle, not bisexual.)

In layperson’s terms, it’s the day we make up for the fact that a year in the Gregorian calendar, the timekeeper that much of the world uses today, is really 365.25 days long. So every four years we must add a day to put us back on track time-wise.

It’s the day that Dee Alexander Brown, author of the iconic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was born in 1908, according to the website Leapyearday.com.

And on this day in 1504, Christopher Columbus reportedly used the occasion of a lunar eclipse to hoodwink some Native chiefs. It was on his final trip to the so-called West Indies, as BBC News recounts.

“After several months of being marooned with his crew on the island of Jamaica, relations with the indigenous population broke down and they refused to continue helping with food and provisions,” BBC News reports. “Columbus, knowing a lunar eclipse was due, consulted his almanac and then gathered the Native chiefs on 29 February. He told them that God was to punish them by painting the moon red. During the eclipse, he said that God would withdraw the punishment if they started cooperating again. The panicked chiefs agreed, and the moon began emerging from its shadow.”

On a happier, though not Native, note, February 29 is also the day that women can ask their men to marry them, as the website Timeanddate.com points out, a tradition that may have its roots in ancient Celtic times.

Other calendars also compensate for this day, including the Hebrew and the Islamic. Learn more about the comparable calendars at Fourmilab.ch, a software website that specializes in various tech calculations.

The calendars of the Mayan Long Count and Haab have 360- and 365-day cycles, respectively, which are roughly comparable to the solar year, according to Fourmilab. But as the National Museum of the American Indian’s Mayan-calendar blog notes, the Maya’s sacred ceremonial calendar contains 260 days in cycles of 20-day deities and 13 numbers—not quite corresponding to any notion of Leap Year as we know it.

It is, however, “the basis of the Maya spirituality that survives to this time,” notes Jose Barreiro (Taíno), head of NMAI’s Latin America office, who writes the blog.

February 29 may not be the end of it. As the earth’s rotation slows and the time between equinoxes lengthens, yet another leap day may be necessary—though not for about 8,000 years.

“The bad news is that the time between equinoxes is getting longer,” writes columnist Mike Dominowski in the Staten Island Advance. “Friction, gravity and tidal forces are inexorably slowing the Earth's rotation. The precise rate of slowing is uneven and therefore unpredictable, but as a result, despite all of our leap-yearing, it is estimated that in about 8,000 years the Gregorian calendar will be about a day behind where it is now.”

Of course, 8,000 years is practically nothing to Indigenous Peoples, who have been around since time immemorial. If we are even subject to the Gregorian calendar eight millennia into the future, Dominowski points out, it will be easy enough to add a February 30 to the year—though who knows when those born on that day will be able to celebrate a birthday.