Leaping lizards! I learn something every day. The latest discovery being that a popular tradition in Britain is virtually not only unknown here in the U.S., but is actually frowned upon by those who are aware of its existence. I’m talking about the February 29th Leap Day custom that gives proposal rights to the female in the relationship.
It seems that women have been going on bended knee - kitchen floor scrubbing excepted - since the 13th century, with the enactment in 1288 of a Scottish law under Queen Margaret, which allowed a damsel “liberty to bespeak ye man she likes”. A codicil to the law stated that the proposer wear and display a red petticoat as a warning to her intended.
In the event that the medieval "matador" entrap her prey only to be spurned, the pursued knave was instructed make it up to the spurnee by purchasing her a new pair of gloves, presumably to hide the fact she wasn’t wearing an engagement or wedding ring. It should be mentioned that Queen Margaret was only five when this law is rumored to have been passed and did in fact die unmarried - at the age of eight. In addition to which there is the other not so minor detail: scholars have been unable to find any record of the law.
Another popular theory as to how the Leap Day marriage proposal custom got started goes back even further; to the 5th Century. Known as "St. Bridget’s Complaint", legend has it that the Irish nun St. Bridget complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. To pacify the nagging nun, St. Patrick supposedly acquiesced to her request and gave women the chance to propose, but only on February 29th, which came around every four years.
Such was Bridget’s joy at winning proposal rights for the single ladies of Ireland that she supposedly went down on one knee and proposed to St. Patrick. He reportedly said no pretty promptly, but made it up to her by giving her a kiss on the cheek and a silk gown. Thus began the Irish tradition that any man declining a leap-day proposal must give the proposer a new dress. If the legend seems like a load of old blarney, add to it that, like Queen Margaret, St. Bridget was still only a child when St. Patrick died.
Regardless of how the tradition got started, Leap Day proposals are still lovingly celebrated in Britain, where it’s all taken very much tongue in cheek. Over here, however, the tradition seems to have died out, probably owing to the arguments put forth over the past few decades that the tradition is anti-feminist and that women don’t need a special day on which to pop the question. That’s a debate I’ll leave for others to leap into.