Leap years only turn up once every four years, so there are all sorts of traditions attached. Does the Netherlands do anything special to mark the arrival of 29 February and what’s it called? I found out a surprising tradition linked to one in Italy and listened to leap day number 1 songs.

IMG_0377 ClockImagine being born on 29 February! It only comes round every four years, so theoretically you’d only be able to celebrate it once every four years on your actual birthdate and not at all at the turn of the century, unless it was a number divisible by 400. I’ve only just discovered that last fact. I knew leap years were divisible by four, but not that centuries had to be divisible by 400 to be a leap year. There’s no point in me trying to explain  leap years because you probably already know, but in case you don’t, here’s a good explanation by CBS.

29 February is schrikkeldag in Dutch

Every time there’s a leap year, I rediscover that 29 February is called schrikkeldag in the Netherlands. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to it as leap day in English, but when I looked it up online, I discovered that that is what it’s called. Is this a new name to fit in with the ‘on this day in history’ obsession of blogs, I wonder, or was it always there?

I think I’ve only knowingly met one person whose birthday was on the 29th, but there are 10,717 Dutch residents (maybe not all citizens) who share that birthday (Source: CBS – the Dutch Statistics Bureau, not the American news channel – cited in De Gelderlander). They comment that fewer babies than normal are born on the 29th because parents tend to avoid the date if they are having a planned caesarean or are induced. Nevertheless, this time four years ago in 2012, 473 babies were born on the day itself.

Getting married on leap day

Heeft februari negenentwintig dagen, dan mogen de meisjes de jongens vragen.
If the month has 29 days, the girls can ask the boys.

In the past, Dutch couples would not have considered getting married on Schrikkeldag because it was considered a strange day, therefore unlucky. Likewise it was unlucky to accept presents or start something new. Most people are no longer so superstitious, but the date can still sometimes cause problems. For example, some websites don’t allow you to fill in 29 February as your birth date . There are legal implications, too. If someone born on 29 February celebrated their birthday on 28 February in a non-leap year, thinking they had passed the legal drinking age, they would be right in Taiwan or New Zealand but still considered underage in England until 1 March.

Since Dutch couples celebrate 12 1/2-year wedding anniversaries, anyone married on 29 August 12 1/2 x 4 years ago will also have a party to look forward to on the extra day in February. I’m sure they were horrified to realise they would have to wait so long because they were very unlikely to have thought of the issue when they were planning their August weddings, unlike those who deliberately chose 29 February. Surprisingly, more people choose to get married on leap day than you would expect as people like the unusual date. I cynically wonder if they pick that date to avoid having to remember their anniversary every year!

Born on leap day

Of course, those actually born on 29 February had no choice in the matter, but they (or their parents) do have the choice of which day to celebrate in non-leap years: should they celebrate on 28 February (early) or 1 March (too long to wait)? The website schrikkeljarig.nl points out that Facebook alerts your Facebook friends on the 28th so they are not late to congratulate you, but I would imagine most celebrate whichever day follows 28 February, so either 29 February or 1 March, depending on the year. If you had a friend whose birthday was on 27 February or 1 March, you could have a joint party most years!

Where does the word schrikkel come from?

As I said, the Dutch name for Leap Year is schrikkeljaar. It’s one of those names I can never remember because it doesn’t crop up that often in conversation. So I wondered where the name came from. The only word I can think of that is similar is verschrikkelijk, meaning terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. I admit it can be confusing to have an extra day on the calendar, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was that bad!

According to Wikipedia, the word schrikkel stems from the Middle Dutch scricken, with the original definition of ‘walking with large steps’ or ‘jumping’ (springen in modern Dutch). In the dialect of Hasselt, it is related to the word schrikschoen meaning a skate, so a sort of jumpy shoe.  Of course, this ties in pretty well with the English name for a leap year. Strangely enough, it’s on non-leap years that we jump over a day; a bit odd when you think about it. It occurs to me that the most accurate translation is to skip, a word that has the dual meaning of jumping and missing out something.

In an online etymological reference, I also noticed a reference to a schrikkeldans (leap dance), not a word I had ever come across before, so I had to investigate. Sadly it hasn’t got anything to do with leapfrog, it turns out to be nothing more than a dance where the woman asks the man to dance, just as 29 February is traditionally the day women are allowed to ask men out or even propose marriage. Not so bad! But schrikkel is after all related to that dreadful verschrikkelijk word, according to M. Philippa et al. (referenced in www.etymologiebank.nl), adding the prefix ver to schrikken, to be surprised or shocked.

Actually the leaping that’s going on has to do more with the other special days of the year being forced to jump or skip to a day later than they would otherwise be celebrated. Going back to the Julian calendar, the extra day wasn’t added at the end of the month, but squeezed in between 23 and 24 February. In fact, it didn’t even have a number to start with, so there was no 29 February, but a nameless day floating in the middle of nowhere. Most peculiar.

The cost of leap day

Given the stereotype that the Dutch are stingy – ahum, careful with their pennies –  I can’t help laughing that one of the main discussion points about the leap year phenomenon in Dutch newspapers is the financial effect. Nibud, the Dutch financial watchdog, works this out every leap year, comparing the extra costs of an extra day (for food, heating, petrol, wear and tear) versus the extra benefits of being able to enjoy an extra day of using internet, TV, insurance. If you are paid by the hour, you might even have a day’s extra income as well as the chance of an extra day’s exercise at your gym for nothing. They calculated that it works out as a loss of € 3 for individuals and € 13 for a family.

However, as an economist called Mathijs Bouman points out on the RTL Nieuws site,  it is ridiculous to calculate like this because it makes no difference in the long run. Salaries and allowances take into account the slight variations in the numbers of days worked each year due to public holidays falling on weekends or during the week and whether or not a year lasts 365 or 366 days. In fact, the number of actual workdays in 2016 is 255, exactly the same as 2014 and 2019 (neither leap years). Oh well, the media has to worry about something!

Fun facts about 29 February

The schrikkeljarig website is full of fun stuff. For example:

  • Radio 10 decided to play only songs by one-hit wonders (eendagsvliegen, lit. one-day flies or mayflies) on 29 February this year.
  • The city of Purmerend was 550 years old in 1960. Since it was a leap year, the town decided to call itself the Town of People Born on Leap Year (Stad der schrikkeljarigen), and gave a silver-plated teaspoon to every child born on 29 February between 1960 and 1972.
  • Another post on the website shows posters by more or less well-known Dutch organisations. The most famous is the Arnhem-based organisation Loesje, that produces amusing and insightful texts – often containing political comment – on posters, calendars and the like. Their contribution is:

“29 februari – Een dag om alles te doen… waar je de afgelopen 4 jaar geen tijd voor had.”
(29 February – A day to do everything… you didn’t have time for in the last 4 years)

Similarly, the Mwah group came up with:

“Schrikkeljaar. Nog een dag langer om je niet aan je voornemens te houden.”
(Leap Year. A day extra for you not to keep your resolutions.)

  • The blog author also tells us about the brilliant wordplay of Wim Meyle’s comment: “Wie op 29 februari geboren is blijft minder jarig.” On the face of it, it means that whoever is born on 29 February will continue to have fewer birthdays. This could then result in them being considered minderjarig, underage.

Unusual Dutch leap year traditions

Trying to find more particular traditions associated with leap years in the Netherlands, I was drawing a blank. Then I happened upon a blog in Dutch about Italy, where a leap year is considered particularly lucky, an anno fausto or lucky year. In Bologna, a giant figure of an old man (il Vecchione)  is burned on the Piazza Maggiore on New Year’s Eve, the giant bonfire symbolising the burning of the troubles of the old year, hoping for a better new year. In leap years, however, the figure burned is that of an old woman (il Vecchiona). The giant figures are made by Italian artists connected to Bologna and are quite spectacular. Take a look at last year’s incredible figure, designed by the performance artist Andreco. Sources: www.italymagazine.com + www.italie.nl

Leap year carnival Den Bosch – Knillis and Hermien

The figure burned in Bologna reminded me of the figures on the carnival floats in the Netherlands, especially as I know a figure is burned ceremonially at the end of the Carnival period on Shrove Tuesday in some places. When I was investigating the Italian tradition, I was surprised to stumble upon a new-to-me leap year carnival tradition in Oeteldonk (the carnival name of ‘s-Hertogenbosch) that is just like the one in Italy. Every year, the giant figure of a man called Knillis (representing local farmers and/or the founder of the city) is displayed at carnival time in the market square. In leap years, however, his wife Moeder Hendrien joins him on the podium.  Both are given a ‘funeral’ at the end of carnival, lifted from their plinth by the Prins Carnaval and his deputy who are hoisted up by a crane. Knillis (and Hendrien in leap years) are laid to rest on a Brabants boerenkar (a Brabant-style farm cart), amidst much sadness, pretend or otherwise. The theme for the following year’s carnival is announced and then it’s all over until the whole sequence starts up again on the 11th day of the 11th month. Photos here: www.denbosch-cultuurstad.com

In 2016, predictions of heavy weather cancelled a number of carnival processions, but this isn’t the first time a storm has caused trouble. In 1990, Knillis was blown off his plinth and taken to a secret hiding-place. Later it was revealed that he was sheltering at the Heineken brewery, but he reappeared in time for his funeral on the Tuesday. The processions that year were also cancelled because of the weather, only the third time ever (after 1926 when the River Maas flooded and the great storm of 1953 (Watersnood) that caused many deaths in both the Netherlands and England). In 1990, the storm blew over not only Knillis but also an English lorry on the bridge at Zaltbommel, causing an enormous traffic jam. Since this prevented many outsiders from visiting the city, Oeteldonk honoured the lorry driver, Anthony Briant, during the Kwèkfestijn later in the year, a carnival song festival.

Number one on twenty-nine two

It would never have occurred to me to look this up myself, but on the Dutch blog dedicated to anything related to 29 February, the most recent blog post covers exactly that question: what was number 1 in the Dutch pop charts on the ‘extra’ day? Surprisingly, I would say there is a higher-than-average representation of Dutch artists. I would have expected that to be the case in the early 1960s, but it surprises me that the trend has continued. Perhaps the Dutch record-buying public is inspired to buy more Dutch music around the Carnival period. Dutch artists held the top position in 1968, 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004 with English-language number ones in 1960, 1964, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 2008, with a Brazilian party hit in 2012 with Michel Teló’s Ai se eu te pego! Now I look at it, the Dutch singles are all interesting and not necessarily what I would expect around Carnaval. In 1968 the much-loved comedian and poet Toon Hermans had a true carnavalskraker (carnival hit) with Mien waar is mijn feestneus? (Mien, where is my party nose?) Unbelievably – or maybe not – it was recorded in a church, the Julianakerk in Soest.

Another thing that struck me about the list is the quality of the Dutch songs represented. The 1996 song 15 miljoen mensen (15 million people) is of the ilk that often brings a lump to my throat as the 15 million people referred to in the title are the citizens of the Netherlands and the song is an ode to the country in all its diversity. I didn’t hear the song in 1996 as I was doomed to only listen to children’s songs at the time (with 2 children under the age of 3), but discovered it on a compilation CD of Dutch music. I will blog more about it on another occasion.

Four years later and another one-hit wonder (more or less, as far as I know) was the curly-topped student singer Abel (the name of the group) with a melancholy song and video shot on a windy tram platform in Amstelveen, recalling his lost love, played by well-known Dutch actress Birgit Schuurman. 2004 saw another heartbreaking song at no. 1 with Dreamer by Dinand Woesthoff (the singer of Kane), recorded the day after his wife, actress Guusje Nederhorst, died of cancer in January. Guusje was a hugely popular soap actress, Kane was incredibly successful and the couple had seemed to have it all until she became ill, so not surprisingly, the song was a hit.

Dutch leap year number one hits

1960 – Neil Sedaka (USA) – Oh Carol
1964 – The Beatles (UK) – I Want to Hold Your Hand
1968 – Toon Hermans (NL) – Mien, waar is mijn feestneus?
1972 – Middle of the Road (UK – Scottish) – Sacramento
(the Scottish band that had a hit with Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep!)
1976 – Nazareth (UK – Scottish) – Love Hurts
1980 – BZN (NL)- Pearlydumm (BZN is an extremely famous Dutch band, often
singing in English). Not one of their most popular numbers, I would
hazard a guess, but it sounds like a take-off of ABBA’s Fernando or
1984 – Queen (UK) – Radio Ga Ga
1988 – Bill Medly & Jennifer Warnes (USA) – The Time of My Life
1992 – George Michael & Elton John (UK) – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me
1996 – Fluitsma & Van Tijn (NL) – 15 miljoen mensen
2000 – Abel (NL) – Onderweg
2004 – Dinand Woesthoff – Dreamer
2008 – Leona Lewis – Bleeding Love
2012 – Michel Teló (Brazil) – Ai se eu te pego!
2016 – Mike Posner (USA) – I Took a Pill in Ibiza

I’m sure I could find out more about leap year in the Netherlands if I tried, but given we’ve already passed the Ides of March, I think it’s time I pressed ‘publish’ and leaped on to another topic.