Unlike more patriotic quadrennial traditions, Leap Day doesn't really get much love during the off-years. Which is why it makes for good comedic fodder: in the last week alone, the holiday featured prominently in the plot lines of 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family (not to mention the multitude of news stories about the unique plight of Leap Day babies).
Same as it ever was, as far as history is concerned. Instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 BC to correct a quarter-day imbalance in his new 365-day year, Leap Day has been treated like the Gregorian calendar’s unwelcome stepchild for centuries, with periodic superstitions blaming it for everything from sickly “leapling” babies to unproductive sheep years.
In keeping with a world gone topsy-turvy, at some point the day became associated with inverted gender roles, giving women a day where they were allowed, at least in theory, to propose to men. In the United States it was dubbed Sadie Hawkins Day, after a plain female character in the popular L’il Abner cartoons. In 1939 Life Magazine featured an article that read: “On Sadie Hawkins Day, Girls Chase Boys in 201 Colleges,” complete with a spread of photos showing off throngs of short-skirted coeds chasing after boys in overalls and straw hats in a new collegiate tradition.
Of course, decades later, women no longer need special, once-every-four-year windows to ask guys out. So has Leap Day lost its cultural significance? Or is the day simply in transition, waiting to fulfill another cultural need?
In 30 Rock's treatment, February 29th turns into a much-loved holiday where everyone dons blue and yellow and a creepy, mustachioed mascot named Leap Day William goes around tossing candy at weeping children. The point is simple: to do things you normally wouldn't, to "take a leap" without worrying about the consequences. While that's a well-worn avenue to comedy, it also points out a higher cultural truth: Leap Day has lost its identity. As Time's James Poniewozik writes, the show's bizarro-world antics poke fun at the way pop culture reinvents the meaning of a holiday to "fulfill a need our traditional culture hasn’t provided for." What began as a day of necessity turned into a scapegoat, a gender equalizer, and now a blank slate onto which we can project almost anything. Shouldn't it be something good?
This February 29, let's do something helpful for the planet. If you're a serial do-gooder, it's an extra day, an added bonus. And if you're not, there's no excuse: Leap Day only happens once every four years. Start recycling, buy that reusable grocery bag, and put down that Double Down sandwich. Take the leap. In another four years, maybe we'll all be seeing the planet reap the benefits.