Leap year customs

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THOUGH it’s still cold, the sun is rising higher and daylight lasts longer. There are even spells of sunshine, reminding us that spring’s on its way.

An old word for spring is lenten, which meant the season of lengthening days. From the 11th century it was also the word for the Christian fast that took place at the same time.

In those days sowing was taking place now, weather permitting.

February 24 is St Matthias’ Day, a crucial date in the agricultural year when people looked for signs that nature was waking up.

In a mild February, “St Mattie sends the sap up the tree.” On the other hand, “If it freezes on St Matthias’ Day, it will freeze for a month together.”


2012 is a leap year, when a day is added to help synchronise our calendar with the sun’s cycle. This goes back to Roman times, when the leap day was added following February 24.

The calendar of the ancient Roman republic was lunar based, and in time it became seriously out of step with the sun.

So in 46BC Julius Caesar ordered a revision that led to the adoption of a solar calendar of 365.25 days. The quarter day was to be made up by adding one whole day every fourth year.

The Julian year worked well enough, but it had a fault.

Its solar year was slightly too long, so that over time the astronomical year drifted away from the religious calendar.

By the 1570s the difference was four days. This led to problems with the date of Easter, which falls on the Sunday after the full moon that follows the spring equinox.

Christmas was affected too because it relates to the winter solstice, and so was the birthday of St John at the summer solstice.

Pope Gregory XIII appointed a calendar commission to sort things out.

One of their recommendations was that a centennial year should only be a leap year when it is divisible by 400. That’s why the year 1900 was not a leap year, while 2000 was.

The one thing most of us know about leap years is that this is when a woman can propose to a man.

This “ladies’ privilege” hardly seems revolutionary now, but it did in the days when the roles of the sexes were more rigidly defined.

For centuries women were expected to take what was offered, rather than choosing for themselves.

And it wasn’t unknown for a man to keep a woman hanging on for years in the hope of a proposal that never came. But it’s impossible to know how many women, if any, claimed the right to propose in a leap year.

Exactly when the ladies’ privilege began is not known, but in 1606 it was mentioned in a book called Courtship, Love, and Matrimony. Further back than that we enter the realm of legend.

When St Bridget met St Patrick, she complained that women did not have the right to propose.

Reluctantly, Patrick made an offer that would allow this once every seven years, but feisty Bridget beat him down to one in four.

Like a lot of customs, the ladies’ privilege has acquired its own folklore. The Scots law of 1288, said to enshrine the privilege, does not exist.

Sadly, there’s no evidence either for the English belief that the woman must wear a red petticoat while proposing, or that the man who refuses must compensate her with the gift of a silk gown.


There’s leaping of an unwanted kind on March 1, so pet owners who stopped preventative treatment during the winter might like to bear it in mind. Tradition says that on this day, “The Devil shakes a bag of fleas at everyone’s door.”

There’s some truth in this, because with lighter days and warmer weather, fleas begin to stir. In the old days before insecticides pre-emptive action was needed, so the prudent housewife was up early to sweep out the house and beat all the mats.