Leap Day Origins

In light of the upcoming special day that only comes round once every four years, I just wanted to offer a little insight into what is actually a very real holiday observed in Eastern Europe. For those that are unfamiliar with the hoopla surrounding Leap Day, there’s a 30 Rock episode that cleverly spoofs on it.

Now that you’re up to speed (perhaps chuckling to yourself at this point as well) — and, additionally, for those of you that were indeed familiar with the holiday and will be observing as such — let me just state that this isn’t meant to put a damper on your celebration, because I know it is all in good fun. The customs and traditions are pretty much the same as detailed in the show, but I’ll go over the facts and a bit of history below.

If I can give you a brief history on how I personally came to discover said holiday: In a period of self-discovery on said date during the early 2000’s, I happened to strike up a conversation in a coffee house with a nice Serbian barista who, through our proceeding talks, informed me of it. I was moved; especially so because of the endearing reasons upon why it was established. So much so, that it compelled myself (since, according to the DNA test I took from Ancestery.com, 11% of me is of Eastern European descent) and then eventually the rest of my immediate family to recognize this blessed holiday.

Prijestupni Dan (or Leap Day) was enacted in 1992 — which, for Bosnians, marked the first day of the Bosnia and Herzegovina independence referendum. Inspired by a stately and respected figurehead from a small village near the Sofia Province: Dima Hodžić (1900-1999). Hodžić was an artist known for his expressionist works depicting the majestic Musala in many of his works. Musala (Bulgarian: Мусала; from Arabic through Ottoman Turkish: Musala, “near God” or “place for prayer”) is the highest peak between the Alps and the Caucasus and the highest in Eastern Europe bar the Caucasus (in short, it’s kind of a big deal over there). Aside from being an artist, and most importantly, Hodžić also dabbled in social issues focused mainly on the independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and was, therefore, very instrumental in the entire process.

The first revelation that came to the young Hodžić happened one day in 1927, during an expedition upon Musala; later stating to a close friend that “I was told by God to leap for freedom.” Another life-turning event occurred for Hodžić while working alongside the likes of Vojislav Kovačević, who was president of The State Anti-fascist Council for the National Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This movement was formed as the highest governing organ of the anti-fascist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina and during World War II, developed to be bearer of Bosnian statehood.

Affected by his time with Kovačević, Hodžić was said to have vowed that he wouldn’t sire a child until “my homeland is as free as God had intended,” and would therefore unfortunately have no children. However, when the promise of a free Bosina was imminent in the early 1990’s, the now elderly Hodžić was viewed as a father figure for many of the people, and thus having “a great number” of children to see the very likely independence. And also, naturally, the adoption of the holiday — an apropos “leap into the inherent free will ordained by God” — was instantly embraced by the people when it was announced by him in 1992. He would only be able to take part in one other celebration in 1996, before passing away three years later of natural causes.

In honor of Prijestupni Dan’s fourth return in 2004, every fourth holiday was from then on considered a special milestone, and were therefore called the Veličanstvena Kvantifikacija (which roughly translates to “a magnificent quantification”). This special weeklong event is first celebrated in the nation’s capital of Sarajevo, which eventually concludes along the shores of the Southern Mediterranean beaches in Neum (ranked number 4 as a popular tourist destination in Eastern Europe during such time). Initially dressed in white, people from far and wide travel to the center of the capital where, among other things, feast and reconnect with distant loved ones. They then make their way (usually on foot) along the 215km trek toward the beach, where they don the nation’s colors of navy and gold.

Beginning at sunset upon the final day of celebration, along the shores of Neum’s beaches, a huge effigy is lit in honor of the people’s belated loved ones — and, of course, the beloved Dima Hodžić. The tears that are invoked from such a reflective mourning is considered good luck, which many people have claimed resulted in a turn of their fortunes and an overall better quality of life. Many further believed that the ancestors have thus shown them favor by such acts, so that they can continue to thrive in the now liberated nation and also so that they can bestow more sretna žalovanje (or happy mourning) upon them at the next Veličanstvena Kvantifikacija — because it, in turn, keeps them liberated in the afterworld.

Children (because they’re children) are told that their tears are turned into candy; and, if they’re lucky, have such under their pillows come the next morning. Furthermore, they’re warned that if they soil the precious special clothing the matriarch of the family (usually the grandmother or in certain fortunate cases the great grandmother) spent a great deal of time fashioning, girls would lose their symbol of beauty (hair) and boys would lose their ability to play (stomped feet) — and, of course, no candy.

Upon being drawn to the beacon of the effigy, Hodžić is supposed to emerge from the Baltic waters to bestow upon the people the blessings given to him by the people’s ancestors — and also trade the children’s tears for candy. (Usually the mayor of Neum undertakes this latter responsibility.) The children, rightly the most eager of all, line the beaches and wait for Hodžić to emerge from the waters. Under the full moon, he arrives and straightaway inspects their faces and clothing, and then — without saying a word — returns to the waters, having made his decision. The children would either be surprised or disappointed upon the next day (usually it’s always surprise).

Strangely enough, Hodžić very much looked like the depiction in the picture, with the exception of having a deep Mediterranean tan and an epic beard. Also, as having been known as an avid swimmer in his time, and once singlehandedly saving a platoon of British Navy soldiers from the churning waters of the English Channel in 1937 after a failed training exercise, this, of course, turned into the lore of him having “gills.”Again, I found this fascinating and my wife and I were even fortunate enough to visit in 2008. Alas, we didn’t make it for Veličanstvena Kvantifikacija, but to my surprise I saw that they still go all out; and — regardless of whether or not you’re a citizen — you do get a nice hair tug and foot stomp if you’re not in the colors. (I found that out very quick, and it is also why, now that I think about it, it made sense seeing a bunch of shops selling such clothing.) The beaches in Neum was actually where I proposed to my wife, as a matter of fact; and if I can get a hold of the pictures I’ll share them with you all. But, in any case, if you’re interested in learning about Dima Hodžić, Prijestupni Dan, or Veličanstvena Kvantifikacija, you can access the info here.

Happy Leap Day

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