Greene’s Director of Studies, Carmen Prozzillo, delves into the legend and lore behind Leap Day. Carmen read Modern Languages at Exeter University and completed her Masters degree in Medieval and Modern Languages at Brasenose College, Oxford.
2012 is a year of many notable events including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. Yet, this year is special for another reason: it is a leap year in which an extra day is added - February 29 – making the year 366 days long instead of the usual 365. Nearly every 4 years is a Leap Year in our modern Gregorian Calendar.
The extra day, known as a ‘leap day’ is special, however, not only because it balances the calendar but also because the tables are turned, and women are allowed the ‘Ladies Privilege’ to propose to the man of their desire. It is believed this tradition was started by Saint Patrick in 5th century Ireland in response to St Bridget’s, a Catholic nun, complaint that it was frustrating for women to wait around for men to propose. In some places, Leap Day has been known as “Bachelors’ Day” for the same reason. A man was expected to pay a penalty if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. This practice has been attributed to a statute passed by Scottish Parliament in 1288, legally requiring men to accept a marriage proposal made to them by a woman during a leap year. In many European countries, tradition dictates that any man who refuses a woman’s proposal on February 29 has to buy her twelve pairs of gloves. The intention is that the woman can wear the gloves to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.
Perhaps the earliest documented reference to the “ladies’ privilege” tradition can be dated back to the medieval ages with this quote attributed to Chaucer, published in the Collectanea by Vincent Lean (1905);
“In Leap Year they have power to chuse
The men no charter to refuse”
It is important to note, however a Leap Day is not always recognized as a day of whimsy. In Scotland, it used to be considered unlucky for someone to be born on Leap Day; in Greece it is said to be unlucky for couples to marry during a Leap Year, and especially on Leap Day.
Lucky or not, take a moment on Leap Day to savour the extra day we’ve all been awarded by the quirks of the solar year—it’ll be another four years until you get an extra day of the year again.