Leap Year / Leap Day – History, Traditions, and Folklore

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ONE OF the convenient fictions we live by holds that there are exactly 365 days in a year. In point of fact, the earth turns roughly 365 and a quarter times on its axis by the time it has completed a full year’s orbit around the sun, which means that periodically the calendar has to catch up, thus the convention of leap years. A leap year contains one extra day, February 29, for a total of 366 days. 2012 is a leap year.

So, where does the “leap” come in? This is a perennial source of confusion. In a normal sequence of years, a calendar date that falls on, say, a Monday one year will fall on Tuesday the next, Wednesday the year after that, Thursday the year after that, and so on. But every fourth year, thanks to the extra day in February, we “leap” over the expected day of the week — Friday, in this case — and that same calendar date lands on Saturday instead.

Even more abstruse is the arithmetical formula used to calculate which years are leap years, here described as succinctly as one could ever hope by Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, author of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

[A leap year is] any year whose date is exactly divisible by 4 except those which are divisible by 100 but not 400.

Why such complexity? Because the exact number of days in a solar year is actually ever-so-slightly less than 365.25 (it is 365.242374, to be precise), so the algorithm had to be designed such that every now and then a leap year is skipped to keep the calendar on track over the long haul.

Leap year / leap day folklore

Persons born on leap day, February 29, are called “leaplings” or “leapers.” However fun it may be to rib them for enjoying 75 percent fewer birthdays than the rest of us over the course of their lives, they do have the special privilege, between leap years, of celebrating their nativity a full day earlier if they so choose. It was once thought that leapling babies would inevitably prove sickly and “hard to raise,” though no one remembers why.

Ironically, notwithstanding the fact that the whole point of adding an extra day to February every four years was to align the human measurement of time more closely with nature, in days gone by folks apparently believed that monkeying with the calendar like that might actually throw nature out of whack, even hampering the raising of crops and livestock. It used to be said, for example, that beans and peas planted during a leap year “grow the wrong way” — whatever that means — and, in the words of the Scots, “Leap year was never a good sheep year.”

The tradition of “ladies’ privilege”

In keeping with the theme of nature gone awry, a whimsical tradition dating back at least four centuries (and still trotted out at four-year intervals by newspaper feature writers) holds that leap years confer upon women the “privilege” of proposing marriage to men instead of the other way around. The convention was (in literature, if not in reality) that any man who refused such a proposal owed his spurned suitor a silk gown and a kiss — provided she was wearing a red petticoat at the moment she popped the question.

The origin of this romantic tradition is long forgotten and steeped in legend. One tidbit often repeated in 19th-century sources claimed it grew out of a statute passed by Scottish Parliament in 1288, of which one of the many quoted versions reads:

It is statut and ordainit that during the reine of hir maist blissit Magestie, ilk maiden ladye of baith highe and lowe estair shale hae libertie to bespeak ye man she likes; albiet, gif he refuses to tak her till be his wif, he sall be mulcit in ye sume of ane hundredth poundis or less, as is estait mai be, except and alwais gif he can mak it appear that he is betrothit to ane other woman, then he shall be free.

Mind you, this passage was already considered suspect by some of the same Victorian authors who quoted it — not only because the text couldn’t be sourced (“the only authority for this statement is the ‘Illustrated Almanac’ for 1853,” wrote one critic, “which probably manufactured the statute as a jest”) but also because its “old English” phraseology rings too modern for the year 1288. In addition, the text itself proved to be quite variable — in regards to grammar, spelling, and even content, with some versions boasting an extra clause specifying that the law pertained to “ilk yeare knowne as lepe yeare.”

Another tall tale — there’s no reason to believe it’s anything but — dates the origin of ladies’ privilege to the 5th century, around the time St. Patrick supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland (speaking of tall tales). As the story goes, St. Patrick was approached by St. Bridget, who had come to protest on behalf of all women the unfairness of always have to wait for men to propose marriage. After due consideration, St. Patrick offered St. Bridget and her gender the special privilege of being able to pop the question one year out of every seven. Some haggling ensued, and the frequency ultimately settled upon was one year out of four — leap years, specifically — an outcome which satisfied both parties. Then, unexpectedly, it being a leap year and St. Bridget being single, she got down on one knee and proposed to St. Patrick on the spot. He refused, of course, bestowing on her a kiss and a beautiful silk gown in consolation.

We may conclude, among other things, that St. Patrick was better at dealing with snakes than with women.

Earliest English-language sources

The American Farmer, published in 1827, quotes this passage from a 1606 volume entitled Courtship, Love and Matrimonie:

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.

That the reversal of gender roles was well recognized at the beginning of the 17th century as a leap year motif is reaffirmed by this passage from the Treatise Against Judicial Astrologie by John Chamber, dated 1601:

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.”

It is again alluded to in this couplet from an Elizabethan-era stage play called The Maid’s Metamorphosis, first performed in 1600 (a leap year):

Master be contented, this is leape yeare,
Women weare breetches, petticoats are deare.

Finally, we would be able to push back the earliest documented reference to the “ladies’ privilege” another 200 years if only we could authenticate this couplet attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) by Vincent Lean in his Collectanea, published in 1905:

In Leap Year they have power to chuse
The men no charter to refuse

Unfortunately, the only other source I’ve found it in is The English Year by Steve Roud, who notes that the attribution has so far proved “impossible to verify.”

By David Emery, About.com Guide

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