Origins: Due to the vagaries of our calendar, every year whose number is cleanly divisible by four is a leap year, and so contains an extra day tacked onto its February. (Excepting full centuries which, to be leap years, must be divisible by 400; if not, they are common years. The year 1900, therefore, was not a leap year, but 2000 was. Leaves one breathless, doesn't it?)
Because leap years are seen as unusual events that disturb the otherwise orderly progression of days/months/years, certain beliefs have been attached to them. (One constant in the realm of folklore and superstition is that out-of-the-ordinary events are deemed to have out-of-the-ordinary consequences or properties.) Leap years, according to folk tradition, were the only times when women could propose marriage to men, with this belief often termed "The Ladies' Privilege." Yet even within this hypothesis there was disagreement as to how far it went — a great many of those who encountered this custom did not see it as applicable throughout the length of a leap year, but only to the extra day itself; that is, only to
Another school of thought held that a man so entreated either had to accept the proposal or pay the refused woman a substantial forfeit for turning her down, such as a silk gown or £100. (Indeed, it was widely and erroneously reported that a Scottish Act of Parliament from the
The origins of "The Ladies' Privilege" are not definitively known, but one posited beginning set in Ireland had
Though everyone loves a good folktale, the beginning of this custom more likely has to do with
In earlier days of Western society, relations between the sexes were far more formal and scripted, with each gender being expected to adhere to its assigned roles. When it came to proposing marriage, men did the asking and women did the accepting or declining — the other way around would have been unthinkable. Thus a leap year reversal of this ordinary state of things would be seen as something else being turned on its ear during a period when little else made sense anyway.
The U.S. has its own "women can pursue men" holiday: Sadie Hawkins Day. Named for a man-chasing female character in the Al Capp cartoon strip Li'l Abner, whose father decreed an annual footrace in her name (with the spinsters chasing the unhitched males of the town and getting to marry any they caught), the day purports to grant women the right to propose marriage to unmarried men, or at least to ask them out. Though there is no set day for this holiday, many communities celebrate it in November, some deeming it to be the Saturday closest to
Unlike in earlier times, there is now no societal prohibition against women being the ones to ask on bended knee. Custom, however, still continues to favor men doing the proposing, but its happening the other way around is no longer seen as shocking or as a challenge to the right way of things.
There is a bit more to leap year lore besides girls suddenly popping up to hold out velvet-covered ring boxes to their beaux. Superstition decrees leap years are notably excellent for beginning important undertakings or business ventures. The choice of
Perhaps the last word on the subject of who should offer marriage to whom goes to the much-wed
Barbara "pop goes the
Last updated: 27 February 2012
Brasch, R. How Did It Begin? New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1965. (pp. 31-33). Pickering, David. Dictionary of Superstitions. London: Cassell, 1995. ISBN 0-304-345350 (p. 154). Simpson, J. and S. Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-860398-3 (p. 210). [London] Daily Mail. "How to Make a Decent Proposal." 29 February 1996 (p. 48).