Leap Year Proposal: What's The Story Behind It?

Why Women Pop The Question On February 29

What is it about leap years that makes people superstitious about marriage?

In Greece, getting married in a leap year is considered inauspicious, and the relationship is thought likely to end in divorce.

Women in Finland are advised to propose only on leap-year day -- Feb. 29 -- for good luck. If her boyfriend should refuse, he is required to pay her a "fine": enough fabric to make a skirt.

In Scotland, an unmarried Queen Margaret allegedly enacted a law in 1288 allowing women to propose on leap-year day. But there was a catch: The proposer had to wear a red petticoat (a skirt under her skirt) to warn her intended that she planned to pop the question.

Perhaps the most well-known of the leap-year marriage superstitions belongs to Ireland, where, again, women are advised to propose only on Feb. 29 for good luck. (Anyone remember the 2010 film, "Leap Year"?)

Legend has it that St. Brigid of Kildare, a fifth-century Irish nun, asked St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, to grant permission for women to propose marriage after hearing complaints from single women whose suitors were too shy to propose. Initially, he granted women permission to propose only once every seven years, but at Brigid's insistence, he acquiesced and allowed proposals every leap day. The folk tale suggests that Brigid then dropped to a knee and proposed to Patrick that instant, but he refused, kissing her on the cheek and offering a silk gown to soften the blow. The Irish tradition therefore dictates that any man refusing a woman's leap-day proposal must give her a silk gown.

If you think these stories sound unrealistic, you're not the only one with doubts.

Scholars have pointed out that, in Scotland, Queen Margaret would have been just 5 years old when the alleged leap-year proposal law was enacted, making it unlikely that she fretted over a woman's right to request a hand in marriage. Plus, historians have been unable to find any reference to the supposed law on the books.

The roots of the Irish tradition are dubious as well. St. Brigid was just 9 or 10 years old when St. Patrick died in 461 A.D. -- though some put this date closer to 493 A.D. -- making the pair's friendship unlikely.

Regardless of the truth behind the traditions, however, many argue that the "holiday" is decidedly anti-feminist and should be abolished.

Katherine Parkin, an expert on the tradition's history in the U.S., wrote: "From 1904 into the 1960s, shame and ridicule made it difficult for women to take advantage of the opportunity to propose to men. Critics held that women who asked men to marry them were desperate, aggressive, and unfeminine." In an age of increasing equality for women, it would seem that offering special permission to propose once every four years would be laughable at best, and insulting at worst.

But Lynn Niedermeier, an author who has written on the history of leap-year proposals, says the tradition can actually be empowering to women. "You could argue that the tradition is not as 'anti-feminist' as it first appears. It could be seen as something that allows the ladies to shake off their cultural shackles and take charge when the objects of their affection are too inexperienced or timid to propose," she told HuffPost Weddings. "I think the leap-year tradition may have taken on a more anti-feminist cast when it got mixed up with Sadie Hawkins Day, where the idea is that women need extra help to make up for their own deficiencies, not men's."

Niedermeier might be right, given that many women who want to get engaged take advantage of the leap year tradition and propose, saying they're tired of waiting to be asked.

Last leap year, in 2008, for example, a British woman proposed to her boyfriend live on the radio on Feb. 29.

"After nine years together and no ring, I thought it was time I took matters into my own hands," said the bride, Lorraine Sayers, after popping the question.

That same year, another British woman, Sally Metcalf, took the plunge, proposing to her boyfriend, Steve Metcalf, on bended knee after 10 years of dating: "I don’t regret doing the proposing myself because Steve always said he would never marry me and it would be a very long engagement, so I was fed up waiting," she said. "I would say to any woman who is waiting for her man to propose, just ask, get down on one knee and ask the question. As long as they love you, they shouldn’t say no. I think any day of the year would be good, although it does feel special that we got engaged on February 29."

Certainly many women are proposing to men, leap year or not. Do they really need a special day to do this?

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Check out the video below to see a 2008 leap-year proposal.

Top photo from Flickr user prayitno

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