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A woman leaps between rocks on Dartmoor. She is wearing a cardigan and knee-high boots.
This is the best Leap Year picture we could muster. Photo by sammiechaffin/ Unsplash

Customs uncovered: Leap Year

It’s not every year you get to write about leap years, for rather obvious reasons. So we thought we ought to jump on the chance in 2024.

Every four years, our calendars undergo a peculiar phenomenon – the addition of an extra day, 29th February, commonly known as leap day. This calendrical adjustment, known as a leap year, has been a source of fascination and tradition across various cultures for centuries. Beyond its mathematical significance in synchronising the solar and calendar years, leap years are accompanied by a tapestry of customs and traditions that reflect both practical considerations and cultural beliefs… or do they? Read on and discover a world of misery (if you’re in Scotland) and celebration (if you’re in Texas).

In this article, you’ll find…

Origins and significance

The concept of a leap year has ancient roots, dating back to a time when early civilizations struggled to align their lunar or lunisolar calendars with the solar year. The Decree of Canopus (238 BC) suggests that Ptolemy III had thoughts about adding an extra day into the year every four years to celebrate his own deification, an idea swiftly shouted down by the Egyptian priests. A few hundred years later, the Julian calendar, implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, established the 365-day year with a leap year occurring every four years (just to balance things out a bit).

Theoretically speaking, leap years exist to maintain synchronisation between the calendar year and the astronomical year, compensating for the roughly 0.25-day difference between the two. Without this adjustment, seasonal shifts would gradually occur, leading to significant discrepancies in agricultural cycles and celestial events. However, as Steve Roud points out in The English Year, “this is not really accurate enough, which is why centennial years are only leap years if they are divisible by 400 (e.g., the year 1900 was not a leap year, but 2000 was).”

Leap year customs and traditions

Across cultures worldwide, leap years have inspired a myriad of customs and traditions, ranging from the whimsical to the practical. (Actually, we take that back. It’s nuts, the lot of it.)

No chance (unless it’s 29th February)

Leap Day Proposals

Perhaps the most famous leap year tradition is the concept of women proposing to men on the 29th of February. Legend has it that this tradition originated in 5th century Ireland when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait too long for men to propose. As a result, St. Patrick designated February 29th as a day when women could take matters into their own hands.

Known as “the ladies’ privilege”, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that there is no concrete evidence for its origin. Furthermore, the notion that it became a Scottish law in the 12th century appears to be pure myth, as is the idea that any man turning down a woman’s proposal was subject to a £100 penalty. The rules are even more fanciful once we get into supposed English tradition, where it was believed that a woman could only propose to a man if she was wearing a red petticoat, and that any man rejecting her had to hand over a new silk gown.

By 1710, the author of The Arbiter of Polite Comportment wrote that, “Ladies have a full and absolute license to propose marriage to single gentlemen on February 29th: and if the gentleman is so rude as to refuse, he is infallibly bound to give the spurned lady a present, which is usually a new pair of gloves on Easter Day.” So, you know… horses for courses.

Leap year babies

The romance of a female-proposed marriage aside, tradition seems to dictate that not much good can come of a leap year. In Scotland (again) it was believed that leaplings (babies born in a leap year) would only experience a life of hardship, or, at the very least, “a year of untold suffering”. Much the same fortune could be expected for a German or Greek child, but there was a better outlook if you were born in Anthony, Texas (“The Leap Year Capital of the World“), where a three-day festival continues to take place every four years, between February 29th and March 2nd, celebrating (you guessed it) all things leap year-ish. This includes a meal for leaplings (“closed to the public” – what on earth do they get up to in there?), lots of music, entertainment and food. Notable by its absence: untold suffering. So it’s a merry leap year to one and all after all.

Leap year superstitions

Back in Scotland, Greece and Germany (but mainly Scotland), a belief proliferated that marriages taking place in a leap year would end in divorce or perhaps even the death of a spouse, although which spouse isn’t clear. Neni Panourgiá, in Fragments of Death, Fables of Identity, went so far as to rule out starting anything new during these lengthened 12 months. Might as well stay in bed…

…unless you’re a gardener, in which case you’ll be out checking that your broad beans haven’t grown “the wrong way”. As T F Thiselton Dyer wrote in English Folklore (1828), “It is a common notion that in leap year broad beans grow the wrong way – that is, the seed is set in the pods in quite the contrary way to what it is the other years. The reason of this is, ‘because it is the ladies’ year; they [the beans] always lay the wrong way in leap year”. Who needs science when T F Thiselton Dyer’s about?

Before we leave the world of superstitions entirely, one last visit back to Scotland, where Robert Chambers conceded in Popular Rhymes Of Scotland (1826) that, “On the whole, there is a prejudice against February in the Scottish mind” (and if that doesn’t make the perfect t-shirt slogan, we don’t know what will). Chambers signed off with a profound little couplet from the agricultural people of Peebleshire and Selkirkshire:

Leap Year
Was never a good sheep year

Consider yourself told.

Leap year folk songs

Given the hold that this auspicious occasion had over the romantic and agricultural lives of our ancestors, it’s rather a disappointment to find that there are a mere 21 references to leap year in the Roud Index. Traditional song titles include ‘The Leap Year Ladies’, ‘Won’t You Hail the Leap Year’ and ‘The Maiden’s Complaint’. Unsurprisingly, most of these are housed in tomes with titles such as Pete Morris’ American Comic Melodist (1857), Monstrous Droll Songs (1796) and Moncrieff’s Comic Songs (1845).

Alas, gems are not in abundance. Most of the traditional leap year songs are as “monstrous droll” as you might imagine. Since we happen to have a copy of Cole’s Funniest Song Book in the World (1890) here on the Tradfolk bookshelf, we’re able to close this admittedly flimsy article on a typically hysterical note. Hold your sides. They may just split.

Leap Year (circa 1890)

Nice room,
Easy chair,
Old Bach
Sitting there

Old Bach
Begins to snore
Gentle rap
At the door

Enter maid,
Rather old,
With a look of
Love untold

Converse a while,
This and that,
Close by him
Old maid sat

Soon she talked
He didn’t care –

She got mad,
Began to cry,
Other tactics
She thought she’d try

Years you’ve called
Every night
As if you had
Perfect right

Why you came
Goodness knows
Never once
Did you propose

Now ’tis Leap Year
By heaven above
I shall tell you
Of my love

Then there was
An awful crash
He had leaped
Through the sash

Funeral next day
At eleven,
Old Bach
Safe in heaven

The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).