29th February Leap Year Proposal
Asking Someone for Their Hand in Marriage
Once every four years on 29th February, it is said that women can propose marriage to the man of their choice and he is unable to refuse. This tradition was liberating in former times when men had all the power, but it is no longer such a big deal. Today it is practiced only a fun and quirky custom and has no social or legal standing.
Traditionally it was the man who had to summon up the courage to ask a woman to marry him. This was part of his (now outdated) role as a provider of income and inheritor of family wealth. Depending on local customs, a woman was often seen as an unequal partner (and subservient) in the relationship. Thus it was the man’s decision whether or not she was suitable marriage material and would be an asset to him in his future career and life ambition.
Spinsters, Widows and Singletons
A successful marriage is more likely to result when both partners agree to the match. So even though the proposal may be made by one partner, it is more than likely that final decision is a mutual one by the couple. Where laws on inheritance make marriage extra important, the pressure on spinsters, widows and singltons to marry is intense. However with money comes power. So, wealthy women tend to have more influence on their choice of marriage partner than poorer ones do. To save a man’s embarrassment of being turned down as a suitable partner, marriage traditions have arisen around the world to allow women to officially choose their own partner on a limited number of dates. The most common one of these is the Leap Day proposal.
The (mainly male) media usually takes a slightly jaundiced view of women being able to propose in a Leap Year. The front page of the New Orleans "The Sunday States" newspaper for Sunday, 2nd January 1916 is a good example of this (see below). The single, male, "baby New Year" is surrounded by a sea of young unmarried women. The danger for unattached males is emphasized by the article beneath the montage entitled “100 Rich Orleans Bachelors Likely Leap Year victims”. The message is that even money will not save you from the clutches of a desperate woman on 29th February.
29th February and Leap Years
The usual number of days in a year in the Western calendar is 365. However this is a fraction of a day less than the time it takes for the Earth to complete its annual rotation around the sun. Thus once every four years, an extra day is added at the end of the month of February to bring the total of days in that year to 366. This is known as a Leap Year.
The video below shows how one woman (with TV cameras in tow) took advantage of a leap day to make her proposal.
Leap Day Proposal
Origin of Women, Marriage Proposals and the Leap Day
There is documentary evidence that the tradition of a woman being able to ask a man to marry her on February 29th goes back to at least the 13th century. However, there are also unproven claims that the custom dates back as far as the fifth century.
The link to the fifth century relates to St Bridget (also known as St Beatrice) of Kildare, Ireland. She was born out of wedlock in 453 A.D. to a Pagan slave who was converted to Christianity by St Patrick.
Bridget’s early life was spent as a slave in her father’s household, although she was allowed some privileges because she was a member of the family. She used her influence to support downtrodden women and to help them to get better marriages. Although she took a vow of chastity herself, it is said that she became a role model for the ideal wife. Men started to call their sweethearts “brides” in honor of St Bridget. Her Saint’s Day in the Catholic Church is 1st February, and so people say that 29th February is still under her influence.
Legislation was made in 13th century Scotland that enabled women to make a marriage proposal on Leap Day. Scotland was then an independent country and not part of the United Kingdom. The 1288 Act allowed women to propose marriage on February 29th only. The Act of Parliament made it clear that on any other date only a man could suggest marriage. At that time, a proposal of marriage was a legally binding commitment. Such a promise once given could not be reneged upon. The law in the rest of (what is now) the United Kingdom remained unchanged. In fact for many years contracts and agreements made on 29th February were not binding under English law. Contracts made on that date (including marriage agreements) were until recently unenforceable.
Popping the Question Today
Marriage has become less important generally in many societies today. Most couples will have lived together for some years before (or if) they decide to formalize their relationship. The tradition of a Leap day proposal of marriage has therefore become more of a good humored avowal of love rather than a way to trap an unsuspecting partner.
Women proposing on a Leap Year day has been seen as a commercial opportunity by card companies such as Hallmark, Moonpig, CafePress and Amazon. However, as you can see from the Victorian postcards used to illustrate this article, they are not the first to do so.
Have you made (or accepted) a marriage proposal on 29th February?
Sadie Hawkins’ Day
In US, there's another day each year when women can ask a man to marry them. This is the first Saturday in November and is known as Sadie Hawkins’ Day after a popular cartoon character.
The cartoon strip “L’il Abner” was drawn by Al Capp and syndicated across eight North American newspapers from 1934 to 1978. The character Sadie Hawkins was still unmarried when she was 35 years old. In the cartoon, her father arranged for a race in which unattached women would chase the unmarried men of the town; the woman’s prize being marriage to the man she caught.
The public liked the idea of this role-reversal so much that Al Capp made the race an annual event in his cartoon. The public’s enthusiasm spawned Sadie Hawkins’ Day dances and other events across America in which a female could take the lead.
US Marriage Statistics
In 2011, the number of marriages in United States was 2,118,000.
This equates to a marriage rate of 6.8 per 1,000 of entire population (i.e. including under 16 years)
The divorce rate was 3.6 per 1,000 entire population.
(Data from US CDC/ NCHS National Vital Statistics System)
UK Marriage Statistics
In 2009, there were 266,950 marriages in the UK.
35% of these were remarriages for one or both partners.
This equates to a marriage rate of 20 per 1,000 population of those aged over 16 years.
(Data from UK Office for National Statistics)