The Leap Year tradition of women proposing marriage on 29 February is thought to have started in 5th century Ireland, when St. Bridget of Kildare complained to St Patrick about women having to wait for so long for their men to propose to them. Commonly known now as St Bridget’s Complaint, her wish was granted by St. Patrick and women were allowed to propose marriage to men every four years on Leap Day.
Another tradition has it that Queen Margaret of Scotland legalized in 1288 the tradition that a woman could ask a man to marry her on February 29. The tradition also insisted that if the would-be husband refuses, he’s liable to a fine but most definitely must reward the woman with a kiss, a silk gown and or 12 pairs of silken gloves. The intention is that the woman can wear the gloves to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.
The leap year day tradition stems from the fact that February 29 was not a real day and had no status in law, therefore normal customs had no status either.
A review of the acts of the Scottish Parliament have failed to show convincing evidence that this unusual decree was issued. But law or not – the tradition seems to be firmly grounded in literature dating back as early as the 1600’s.
Establishing The Tradition
In the Elizabethan-era stage play called The Maid’s Metamorphosis, first performed in 1600 (a leap year) the line can be found:
Master be contented, this is leape yeare, Women weare breetches, petticoats are deare.
In another publication – Treatise Against Judicial Astrologie by John Chamber, dated 1601 the leap year tradition is again referenced:
If the nature of anything change in the leap-year, it seemeth to be true in men and women, according to the answer of a mad fellow to his misstress, who, being called knave by her, replied that it was not possible, “for,” said he, “if you remember yourself, good mistress, this is leap-year, and then, as you know well, knaves wear smocks.”
The tradition is again given support in a book published in 1606 entitled Courtship, Love and Matrimonie the author writes:
Albeit, it is nowe become a parte of the Common Lawe, in regard to the social relations of life, that as often as every bissectile year doth return, the Ladyes have the sole privilege, during the time it continueth, of making love unto the men, which they may doe either by wordes or lookes, as unto them it seemeth proper; and moreover, no man will be entitled to the benefit of Clergy who dothe refuse to accept the offers of a ladye, or who dothe in any wise treate her proposal withe slight or contumely.
In North America as early as 1827 in the publication The American Farmer readers were informed that that they should be aware that women “as part of the Common Law” have the right to ask a man to marry them on February 29.
Those born on February 29 are known as leapers and leapings.
Thirty days hath September,
April, June and November;
All the rest have thirty-one
Save February, she alone
Hath eight days and a score
Til leap year gives her one day more.