Is Lent Longer in a Leap Year?

40 Days or 41?

Astronomical clock and calendar, Cathedral of Saint Paul, Muenster, Germany.
The astronomical clock, a marvel of the late middle ages. The calendar, which reaches into the year 2071, is at the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Muenster, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Leap Day—February 29—comes around only once every four years. A feature of both the current Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar it replaced, Leap Day compensates for the fact that the Earth takes not just 365 days but about a quarter-day longer than that to make one complete trip around the sun. So every four years, we have to add a day to the calendar just to get the calendar back in sync with the solar system.

Observing Leap Day

Different people celebrate Leap Day in different ways: Some take the day off work, others throw Leap Day-themed parties, while those who are lucky enough (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) to have been born on Leap Day get to celebrate their birthday for the first time in four years.

But What About Lent?

For Catholics and other Christians who observe Lent, though, Leap Day raises an important question. Since Ash Wednesday can fall anywhere from February 4 to March 10 (see When Is Ash Wednesday? and How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Calculated?), there's a good chance that Leap Day will fall during Lent. When that happens—as it did in both 2012 and 2016—is Lent 41 days long instead of 40?

An Extra-Long Fast?

This is no small concern—after all, adding one additional day to our Lenten fast makes it 2.5 percent longer! How can the Church expect us to give up [chocolate|TV|Facebook|beer] for an extra day?

What's a faithful (but, let's admit it, frail) Catholic to do?

Lent Is Still 40 Days

Thankfully, Leap Day poses no problem for Catholics, even when it falls in the midst of Lent. Why? Because, while the date of Easter Sunday changes every year (see How Is the Date of Easter Calculated?) the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday is fixed.

Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter (see How Is the Date of Ash Wednesday Determined? and How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated?), and that's just as true in a Leap Year as in a normal year. Adding an extra day on the end of February changes nothing. (We'd have to add an extra day to a week, not to a month, to increase the gap between Ash Wednesday and Easter to 47 days.)

So there's no need to worry. If you've made it through your 40-day Lenten fast in previous years, you should have no problem making it through it this Leap Year. Or at least, no problem brought about by Leap Day. Now, that bar of chocolate in the cupboard is another matter . . .