University of Arizona

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Breaking of Traditions for the Leap Year

Breaking of Traditions for the Leap Year

Traditions come with a leap year that includes an extra day every four years. Many early laws did not recognize February 29th as a real legal day, and thus sometimes laws and customs were allowed to be ignored.

One convention that could be broken on February 29th, or sometimes for the rest of the leap month or the entire leap year, was that a woman was allowed to propose marriage to a man.

There are many stories behind the existence of this custom. An Irish legend states that St. Brigid asked St. Patrick to allow women to propose to men.  He agreed that this would be okay, but only on leap year. According to Scottish lore, the unmarried Queen Margaret enacted a law to allow women to propose on leap day. However the woman was to wear a red petticoat to let her intended husband know that a proposal was imminent. Generally if a man refuses to marry the woman who proposes to him, he is then obligated to buy her presents ranging from dresses to gloves.

Some argue that this unusual break in tradition keeps a balance between men and women in the same way that a Leap Year keeps a balance in the calendar.

Whatever the origin, the legend naturally led to fun and jokes.  Leap Year parties and dances flourished in which women were allowed ask the men to the dance. It also presented an opportunity for cartoons and humorous postcards to present women proposing as unattractive or aggressive. These images poked fun at single women and the power they were allowed to hold for one day every four years.