The leap year, where the shortest month of February gains an additional day, is one of the peculiarities of the Gregorian calendar. This additional day, February 29, also has some legal lore surrounding it in the Scottish law tradition.
On February 29, 1288, the unmarried Queen Margaret of Scotland is said to have codified the declaration of St. Patrick. In addition to fixing the calendar, the day could be used to “fix” other social norms as well.
The History Channel states,
According to legend, in 5th century Ireland, St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. St. Patrick at once remedied the situation with a leap-year loophole. He declared 29 February, occurring every four years during a leap year, a day that women could propose to men.
…According to the Scottish law, any man who declined a proposal in a leap year must pay a fine, ranging from a kiss to a pair of gloves to a silk dress to £100. The leap year legend spread and soon polite society was holding leap year balls and leap year dances, organised for women to ask men to dance and to ask for a man’s hand in marriage.
The remedy supposedly comes from the fact that after St. Patrick’s declaration, Brigid herself dropped on one knee and proposed to him. He unfortunately turned her down, but gave a her a kiss and a silk gown to help heal her wounded heart.
The problem with this theory is that there is no written record of this law from 1288.
Queen Margaret was only 5 at the time this law was supposedly past, making such matters of state highly dubious given her age, especially when you consider she lived in Norway, never actually visited Scotland, and died 3 years later. Then there’s the challenge around the fact St. Brigid also would’ve been 7 years old when St. Patrick died.
Either young girls in Scotland (and outside of it) were so obsessed with getting married before they even hit puberty that they changed the law, or there is some other explanation.
Some others suggest that its origins come from when the leap year was not yet recognized under English law, and therefore this unrecognized day operated in a legal vacuum when people could contravene conventional norms. In any case, it became quite popular by the 17th century, at least popular to feature in correspondence between loved ones.
Apparently the tradition made its way to Canada as well. The Toronto Daily Star wrote on Feb. 29, 1924,
Today is the day on which every unmarried male should take to a cyclone cellar.
The advantage of a leap year proposal might be that such anniversaries would only be celebrated once every 4 years. That means a fourth less of the gifts, and a fourth less of the opportunities to forget such occasions.
For others though this may actually be a disincentive against using this day for a memorable occasion. Think of the poor souls born on Feb. 29, who age four times slower than the rest of us (at least on a calendar). They have to wait that much longer to celebrate their birthdays, and everyone probably wonders why a 5 year-old is entering university, while looking like a grown adult. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes for a great short novel or a film, but not so much for a lifetime, or a relationship.
The lack of celebrations may also help explain why leap year marriages appear to be less successful than others. Think of those relationships which feel like they’ve been married for 24 years, but on a calendar have been together for 4. They should still be honeymooning, but instead they’re already know each other so well they’re barely sick of each other.
Fortunately men no longer need to propose to women, and women can today easily propose to men (and to other women as well). Nobody really needs to propose to anyone, as such propositions are no longer conditions precedent to falling in love.
Cyclone cellars, it seems, can now be repurposed as wine cellars.
Leap Days are just a mathematical anomaly, one created based on subjective criteria by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 to align the calendar with the spring equinox. But in a secular society, and one where social norms between genders have shifted considerably, we may still find value in this day.
The real Valentine’s Day may not be Feb. 14, but Feb. 29. The fleeting and rare nature of the Leap Day may best be used to remind ourselves that you cannot take your love for granted, because you never know when you will run out of time.
And that’s a law that isn’t found anywhere either, but is one that is rather universally accepted.