For some commitment shy men, this weekend may be a good time to take a long weekend break. Being a leap year, next Monday is February 29th, when custom dictates that women can ask men to marry them. Why women should have to wait four years to pop the question is beyond us but expect to see next week’s papers full of quirky stories and a big surge in Engagement Notices in the following weekend’s editions.
But where would such an odd custom come from and how else is the day marked around the world? You can either thank an Irish woman from the 5th Century or a Scottish one from the 12th. Take your pick of the legends. St Bridget was reputed to have appealed to St. Patrick to offer women the chance to ask men to marry them whilst Queen Margaret of Scotland is supposed to have passed a law (in 1228) ‘ordering a man reluctant to accept a woman’s proposal to pay a fine or present her with a silk gown to make up for his bad attitude’. So men obviously had attitude problems towards matrimony back then too?
The idea of men buying women a present as recompense for passing up on a marital proposal opportunity clearly took off as in many European countries, especially in the upper classes of society, tradition dictated that any man who refused a woman’s proposal on February 29 had to buy her 12 pairs of gloves. The intention was that the woman could wear the gloves so as to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring. During the middle ages there were even laws introduced that governed this tradition. (No doubt the result of much lobbying by the glove manufacturers guild or its equivalent).
By the 1780s, there were leap year parties that allowed girls to ask boys for a dance — but on just the one night. This must have been pretty irksome if the party coincided with the boys’ darts night.
Never one one to miss a commercial opportunity – and no doubt buoyed with the success of their St Valentine’s Day innovation – penny postcard makers introduced Leap Year cards in the early 20th century.
In Scotland, it used to be considered unlucky for someone to be born on leap day whilst the Greeks consider it unlucky for couples to marry during a leap year, and especially on Leap Day.
Of course, you don’t have to be born Scottish to see how unfair life is; celebrating a birthday every four years while all your friends have an annual birthday bash must be pretty galling whatever your nationality. And surely only the most miserly Greek would get married on leap day, thereby only having to buy his wife a wedding anniversary card every four years?
Although this must lead to some strange situations. Imagine, after twenty five years of marriage being invited to all your friends’ Silver Wedding Anniversaries while you have just celebrated your sixth?
We have Julius Caesar to thank for leap ear as he introduced it over 2,000 years ago (or 500 if you keep to the leap year Calendar). He came up with the idea of an adjustment so as to ensure the seasons remain aligned with the calendar. Further adjustments were needed when the Gregorian calendar came along, which shows just how tricky calendar alignment can be.