Leap Years, February 29th, and Marriage Proposals

Updated on November 14, 2019
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Scientist and author, Beth writes on a wide variety of subjects.

This comic postcard is from the leap year 1908. A potential mother-in-law instructs her daughter on a man-hunt. "Be careful, Clara, that's a fine Specimen!'"
This comic postcard is from the leap year 1908. A potential mother-in-law instructs her daughter on a man-hunt. "Be careful, Clara, that's a fine Specimen!'" | Source

Will You Propose This Leap Year?

Tradition has it that on 29th February, a woman can make a Leap Year marriage proposal to the man of her choice. There has never been a legal basis in any country other than Scotland for this idea. It is just a fun, made-up custom.

In the old days, a man’s role was to provide for his family, and his wife was seen as an unequal partner (and subservient) in the relationship. A man would choose a woman based on whether she would be an asset to him in his future career and life ambition.

Marriage is of less importance today, and most long-term relationships work because both partners freely enter the contract. However, February 29th offered a chance for women to make proposals in a light-hearted way.

This 1908 postcard reads "Charlie shall propose tonight, I swear it by yon twinkling star, For ages past might's been right, and all is fair in love and war."
This 1908 postcard reads "Charlie shall propose tonight, I swear it by yon twinkling star, For ages past might's been right, and all is fair in love and war." | Source

What Is a Leap Year?

A normal year has 365 days, but the earth takes 365 and a 1/4 days to orbit the sun. Every four years an extra day is added to the calendar at the end of February to even up the calculation. This is known as a leap year. The video below shows how one woman took advantage of a leap day to make her proposal.

Leap Year Wedding Proposal in Edinburgh, Scotland

Spinsters, Widows and Singletons Chase Unmarried Males

The popular press and seaside postcards in the early 20th century poked fun at the idea of women proposing marriage in a Leap Year. The images in this article show pictorial warnings to young men to be alert for predatory women on February 29th.

The front page of the New Orleans "The Sunday States" newspaper for Sunday, 2nd January 1916 is an example of this (see below). A lone single male baby (the New Year) is surrounded by a sea of young unmarried women. The danger for unattached males is emphasized by the news item below the montage entitled “100 Rich Orleans Bachelors Likely Leap Year Victims”. The message is that even money won’t save you from the clutches of a desperate woman on the upcoming Leap Year marriage proposal day of 29th February.

100 Rich Orleans Bachelors Likely Leap Year Victims

New Orleans "The Sunday States" newspaper, 2 Jan 1916. The "Baby New Year" is surrounded by young women with the headline "It's Leap Year, boys".
New Orleans "The Sunday States" newspaper, 2 Jan 1916. The "Baby New Year" is surrounded by young women with the headline "It's Leap Year, boys". | Source

Origin of Female Marriage Proposals and the Leap Day

There is documentary evidence (from Scotland) 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 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.

This 1908 postcard reads "Maidens are eagerly waiting, their traps enticingly baiting, for the year nineteen nought eight. By the old laws of leap year, they can propose without fear, and pick their own choice for a date."
This 1908 postcard reads "Maidens are eagerly waiting, their traps enticingly baiting, for the year nineteen nought eight. By the old laws of leap year, they can propose without fear, and pick their own choice for a date." | Source

Scotland's Leap Day Law of 1288

Legislation made in 13th century Scotland 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 the 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.

Should A Woman Propose Marriage To A Man?

US Marriage Statistics

Data from US Census Bureau

  • In 2018 the median age of first marriage reached its highest on record: 30 years for men and 28 years for women.
  • In 2017 50% of all Americans aged 18 and older were married. This compares to 58% in 1990.
  • In 2016 the number of Americans living with an unmarried partner reached 18 million. This is 29% more than in 2007.

UK Marriage Statistics

Data from UK Office for National Statistics

  • In 2016 there were 249,793 marriages in England and Wales. This is 1.7% more than in 2015, but 1.0% fewer than in 2014.
  • In 2016 97.2% of all marriages were between opposite-sex couples and 2.8% were between same-sex couples.
  • In 2016 there were 7,019 marriages between same-sex couples, an increase of 8.1% from 2015.
  • In 2016 marriage rates for opposite-sex couples were lower at all ages compared with 2006, except for men aged 60 years and over and women aged 50 years and over.

He Said Yes to Her in Northampton, England

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

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  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 

    4 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

    This artivle has many interesting facts and was fun to read.

    i had not thought of this leapyear custom in a long time. I really enjoyed this entertaining read.

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