Ready to make the leap? The origins of women proposing on a leap year day

2020 is a leap year, meaning that we get an extra day, the 29th February. According to some customs, this day is also when women propose to men, rather than the other way around, as is traditional. 

Before we get into that, why do we get leap years at all? The reason is that it actually takes the Earth 365.25 days to orbit the Sun, not 356 days. So, every four years, we have an extra day to make up the difference.

OK, so where does this tradition of women proposing on a leap year day come from? And is it an outdated practice that has had its day, or a good opportunity for women to turn the tables and subvert expectations?

There are various theories about where the tradition begins. Some suggest that it dates back to Scotland, in 1288, where Queen Margaret supposedly enacted a law allowing women to propose on leap year day. Women planning to propose apparently had to wear a red petticoat - a skirt under their skirt - to signal their intention.

There are some problems with this theory, the main one being that Queen Margaret was only 5 years old in 1288. Historians have also not been able to find any references to such a law, so there's no evidence that this really happened.

Another possible origin is found in Ireland, where St Brigid supposedly asked St Patrick to allow women to propose after hearing complaints from single women that their intended husbands were too shy to pop the question. St Patrick is said to have allowed this to happen every leap year. As it was leap year day, St Brigid immediately proposed.

According to the tale, St Patrick turned her down but offered her a kiss and a silk gown as a consolation prize. This is supposedly the origin of an Irish tradition which says that any man refusing a woman's leap day proposal must give the woman a silk gown. Did St Patrick happen to have a silk gown to hand that he could give away? An unwanted Christmas present, perhaps?

There isn't much evidence to support this theory either. Historians put St Brigid's age at 9 or 10 when St Patrick died, making the whole event pretty unlikely. 

Interestingly, the Scottish origin story also states that a penalty must be paid by any bachelors who turn down hopeful women on this day; a kiss, a silk dress, or gloves. Gloves, it is suggested, are so that women can cover their hands, so people can't see that they aren't wearing an engagement ring.

One other penalty suggested is cash. Should unmarried men stay indoors on leap year-day then, for fear of losing money? Fear not - a get out clause is to say that you are already betrothed, although presumably you do then actually have to marry someone else at some point.

As well as the traditions and tales, there are also superstitions about leap years and marriage. In Greece, getting married in a leap year day is considered to be unlucky. February was known as the month of the dead to the Romans, when Hades would walk the Earth. Adding another day to that month just added to the woe. When the Romans conquered Greece, this tradition was passed on, and leap years are considered, by extension, to be bad luck years. Ukraine also considers a leap day marriage to be unlucky.

In Finland, however, it is considered good luck for women to propose on a leap year day. Similar to the Scottish and Irish stories, a penalty of clothing, for those that turn down proposals, features again, although this time a man refusing a woman has to buy her enough fabric to make a skirt. The Finnish version, it seems, features a bit more self-assembly. Shame it's not Sweden, as there would be an Ikea flat-pack furniture joke there waiting to happen. Why always clothes? Are these in short supply in Europe?

One famous example of a woman proposing to a man is the UK's Queen Victoria, who asked Prince Albert to marry her in 1839. Royal tradition states that no-one can propose to a reigning monarch, so it was this way around. Albert, of course, accepted, and it wasn't a leap year day, so no gloves, dress or skirt materials would have needed to be offered as a consolation prize. The Queen presumably would not have been amused.

Queen Victoria of course is not the only famous woman to have popped the question. Danny Dyer’s wife Joanne Mas proposed in 2015, and pop star Pink proposed to motocross star Corey Hart in 2005.

So, given that we’re in the 21st Century, is the idea of female leap year day proposals outdated? Sexist? Inappropriate? How would it apply to same-sex marriages?

Taking a step backwards, why is it assumed that men should be the ones to propose? Go back far enough, and there is some unpleasant history here. Many years ago, women were seen as little more than property, an attitude which has thankfully been buried, as marriage became seen as less of a legal contract, and more of an act of romance.

Speaking of romance, is this the reason why it is assumed that men should be the ones to propose? Data from a social dating app suggests that plenty of men would be happy to be asked. Some versions of the leap day proposal tradition, dating back to the 1900s, paint women who propose as ugly and desperate. Surely these stereotypes need to be thrown away in the modern era.

Could the tradition of the leap year day proposal for women be an empowering one? Behind some of the origin stories comes a theme of the day as one where the usual rules don’t apply, and where women can approach potential spouses who are willing to marry them but are perhaps too shy to pop the questions themselves.

There is no doubt that things have moved on; of course, both men and women can propose, on any day of the year. But it can still be fun to observe traditions sometimes. Why not pick and choose which traditions work for you? And to show you love your partner, why not take the leap? You can join the 12 couples in Nottinghamshire that have already booked their weddings on 29th February 2020.

If you’re ready, why not visit our weddings page, and see the possibilities for your special day: www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/celebrate