By Barbara Rimkunas
Posted Feb. 25, 2016 at 4:34 PM
At Exeter’s Leap Year party in 1892, held at the Town Hall, “the brilliantly lighted hall was beautiful with elaborate decorations of flags, streamers and palms. At 8 o’clock Edney’s orchestra of Haverhill, 12 pieces, began a delightful concert of six numbers. Dancing immediately began, and continued until one, when an order of 20 numbers had been completed. In the intermission ices and light refreshments were served by caterer Hervey. The attendance was very large.” The Exeter News-Letter touted it as, “emphatically the social event of the year.” Leap Year parties were held again in 1896 and 1904, although scaled-down considerably.
Feb. 29 — Leap Day — is terribly underrated. Calendars usually tick along in a logical way and then suddenly every four years we throw an extra day into the mix to keep us on the correct orbital date. Salaried workers who clock in on the 29th are working an extra day for free – a bit of enjoyable revenge for all the hourly employees out there who get cheated working the night shift when daylight saving time changes to standard time. But then, Leap Years are always crazy anyway, falling as they do during presidential elections and the Olympic Games.
Leap Day itself is rarely celebrated, although by all rights it should be. If you search for Leap Day events on the internet a whole host of crafty art projects – usually involving frogs – turn up. Leap Day is unusually popular with public libraries and nature organizations. One can also find various elementary schools holding special celebrations, although New Hampshire’s quirky winter break schedule often makes Leap Day a vacation day.
Exeter’s most famous Leap Day occurred in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln stepped off the train at the depot on Front Street for a six-day visit to New Hampshire. Lincoln’s son, Robert, was attending Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for his Harvard entrance exams. Abraham Lincoln, who was not considered a potential candidate for the presidential election, came east to make a speech in New York. His speech at the Cooper Union Institute on Feb. 27, in which he addressed the problem of slavery and its potential spread to the western territories, was widely reprinted. Arriving in Exeter on the 29th, Lincoln met up with Robert and travelled throughout the state to Concord, Manchester and Dover before addressing Exeter’s citizens on March 3 at the Town Hall. He stretched his time with Robert until March 5, after which he continued to make speeches throughout New England. This eastern trip introduced him to the voting public propelling him to the nomination at the Republican convention in May. And he first placed his big foot on Exeter soil on Leap Day. For that reason alone we deserve a party.
And yet, Leap Day goes by each year without fanfare. A 2012 episode of Tina Fey’s TV sitcom, “30 Rock” created a world in which Leap Day was celebrated with the arrival of “Leap Day William” a jovial character who tosses candy to children and penalizes anyone not wearing the official Leap Day colors of yellow and blue. Of course, no such fun actually exists in our world. The only Leap Day tradition to be found is a somewhat suspect practice of women proposing marriage to men – if he refuses, he must pay a penalty. Possibly an old Irish custom, in the United States it sounds a bit like Sadie Hawkins Day, which is celebrated on Nov. 15.
A Leap Day birthday can be both distinctive and troublesome. Statistically, the chances of being born on Feb. 29 are about one in 1,461 (give or take the missing three leap days every 400 years). Checking Exeter’s birth records since 1887, when they were first recorded in the annual town report, there have only been 24 babies born on Leap Day. 1956, the height of the baby boom, holds the record with five births, although it was much more common for the date to have no births at all.
Since 1960, there have been only four Leap babies; Cordelia Cayten is one of them. Now an adult living out-of-state, she had this to say about her birthday, “I remember that there was a news article written about me and a few other seacoast area leap year babies back when we were born, and one of the mothers said something like ‘I never believed in leap year babies but now that I have one I guess I do!’ And I thought, how on earth can you ‘not believe in’ people being born on a day that exists on our calendar?” Still, her birthday does give her immediate acceptance into the Honor Society of Leap Day Babies. Members refer to their age with a leap designation, such as “4 at 16” or “6 at 24” to indicate the number of leap and chronological birthdays. Problems such as when to celebrate one’s birthday on a non-leap year are discussed on their website. Most choose to go with Feb. 28. Called “strict Februarists” they hold that leap births can only be in February. Can you get a free meal on your birthday in a non-leap year?
It only happens every four years, so make the most of Feb. 29. At Exeter’s 1896 party, held at Unity Hall on Elm Street, the News-Letter reported, “the hall was very prettily trimmed with yellow and white bunting.” Perhaps at least part of the 30 Rock color scheme can be considered ‘traditional.’ We all need a bit more yellow in our lives at this time of the year. Maybe try doing something a bit out of the ordinary on Leap Day. It’s no ordinary day, after all, even Cordelia admits to that. “All said though, I’d rather have my birthday be this weird unappreciated day than some lame normal day.”
— Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.