History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 February 2012

Happy Leap Day!

I was watching 30 ROCK the other night, and the irrepressible Tina Fey and her writer Luke Del Tredici came up with a marvelous alternate universe for her characters -- one in which all of them celebrate Leap Day. They all know about an avuncular guy named "Leap Day William" and everyone wears blue and yellow (they all looked like the Swedish flag) to honor Leap Day. The television show even had a meta referential show-within-a-show: a Jim Carrey movie costarring Andie Macdowell in which he plays a regular guy who is magically transformed on February 29 into Leap Day William (the movie was continuously playing on TV screens on the set). The whole 30 ROCK episode was filled with various Leap Day traditions, all of which were of course invented for the purposes of the show, but which got me wondering about real Leap Day traditions.

It was the ancient Egyptians who figured out that the man-made calendar needed to play catch-up with the solar year (it actually takes the Earth 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds to orbit the Sun); but it was the Romans who designated February 29 as the extra day, and the calendar was not formally adjusted until the 16th century. The Gregorian calendar added February 29 to years divisible by 4 (2004, 2008, 2012) -- but -- any year ending in 100 doesn't merit a leap day unless it's also divisible by 400. This is a lot for math-challenged folks like me to remember. But suffice it to say that according to this rule the year 1600 would get a leap day, but the year 1700 would not.

One of Leap Day's genuine traditions is a romantic one, more or less the old Celtic forerunner of Sadie Hawkins Day (the first Saturday in November, first mentioned on November 15, 1937 by the American cartoonist Al Capp, who drew "L'il Abner").

Legend has it that in fifth century Ireland St. Brigit (also spelled Brigid) of Kildare kvetched to St. Patrick about the injustice of women having to wait around for their sweetheart to propose. And in his infinite generosity, the man who supposedly chased the snakes out of Ireland threw the girls a bone and told St. Brigit that once every 4 years, on Leap Day, February 29, they could do the proposing.

Traditions weren't law, however. It was not until 1288 when Scotland passed a law permitting women to propose to their swains (or someone else's, perhaps), that the turnabout Leap Day tradition was formally codified.

By the way, a guy couldn't "just say no" to a woman who proposed to him on Leap Day without consequences. A man who declined a marriage proposal faced a fine, which could range from a kiss to a pair of gloves, to payment for a silk dress.

Yet not every culture finds leap years so romantic. According to Greek superstition, it's considered bad luck to wed in a leap year. Why? Would fewer anniversary celebrations make it seem like a couple enjoys fewer years of wedded bliss?

I'm writing this to post ahead of time because I'll be out of town on February 29. I just realized I forgot to pack anything blue and yellow. :)

Do you have any Leap Day traditions?


Blogger Regencyresearcher said...

I have often wonderd why they didn't give February 30 days? March and January could have each given up one. Why not add the extra day at Mid summer?

7:08 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

I don't know. How did February end up so short to begin with? Any calendar experts out there?

7:12 AM  

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