Every four years, residents of Anthony, N.M., (pop. 7,904) and Anthony, Texas, (pop. 3,850) throw a birthday party for people born on Feb. 29, but they invite everyone to join in the celebration in the self-proclaimed Leap Year Capital of the World.
Anthony has claimed that title since 1988, when resident Mary Ann Brown—a Leap Year baby born in 1932—proposed the idea to the town’s Chamber of Commerce as a way to promote the farming community that straddles the Texas-New Mexico border.
“I always thought that Leap Year Day should have more recognition,” says Brown, who celebrates her 18th birthday on Feb. 29 (that’s 72 calendar years to the rest of us). “It just came to me that it would be a good theme for the Chamber of Commerce to use—and we’d only have to work hard once every four years.”
On Feb. 1, 1988, Brown and her neighbor, Birdie Lewis—who also was born on Leap Year Day—approached Chamber of Commerce officials with the idea of a Leap Year Festival, a Leap Year Birthday Club, and a new title for Anthony. (The town had been calling itself “The Best Little Town in Two States.”) The chamber agreed with the unique proposal, and soon, the governors of both Texas and New Mexico made proclamations declaring Anthony the Leap Year Capital of the World.
With only a month to prepare, the first festival drew only nine Leap Year birthday celebrants from neighboring towns in Texas and New Mexico, who shared a birthday cake at Brown’s auto parts store. By the time the next Leap Year rolled around, however, a few thousand people came to Anthony for a two-day festival, including “Leapies” (also known as “29ers”) from several U.S. states and as far way as Germany.
2004 marks Anthony’s fifth Worldwide Leap Year Festival. Festivities will include a 10K race, chuck wagon breakfast, hot air balloon launch, crafts show, carnival, hayrides, golf tournament, concerts, a parade, and of course, a birthday party for those rare individuals born on Feb. 29.
“When you only get one birthday every four years, you want to make it special,” Brown says. “Here in Anthony, we try to do everything we can think of to entertain the people who come to the festival.”
Only about 4 million of the world’s 6 billion people were born on Feb. 29; about 200,000 of them live in the United States. The odds of being born on Feb. 29 are 1 in 1,461, which means that less than 1 percent of the population are Leap Year babies. The Worldwide Leap Year Birthday Club, founded by Brown, has more than 400 members worldwide.
But the Leap Year celebration is not just for those born on Leap Year Day—after all, Brown points out, everyone gets to enjoy an extra day this year.
“It’s not just any old day,” she explains. “Leap Year Day is important, because it keeps the calendar in sync with the rotation of the Earth. It’s a very special day with a very special purpose.”
Roman emperor Julius Caesar introduced Leap Year back in 46 B.C. as a way to account for the fact that the calendar was 365 days long, while the Earth’s rotation is 365 and 1/4 days long. Because of that discrepancy, months on the calendar were no longer matching up with the seasons. But Caesar’s calculations were a little off, and after 15 centuries, the dates were once again off kilter. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII tweaked the Leap Year rules a bit, fixing the problem and setting up the calendar system we still use today.
“Leap Year Day will never be ‘just another day’ for me,” says Anthony Chamber of Commerce president Jonathan Boldt. “For such a small town to have such a distinction is a big deal. It’s just like the Olympics—every four years, and it’s happening right here in Anthony.”