29 February 2012

29 February - Leap Day

Weather Ember Day.  The weather today foretells the weather in April. 

“During leap year, the girl who counts all the gray horses she sees, until she has got up to a hundred, will be married within a year to the first gentleman with whom she shakes hands after counting the one-hundredth horse… If someone would bring a drove of gray horses to town today, what a shaking of hands would take place tomorrow.” [Warren Gazette, January 28, 1876]

“Bachelors may breathe easier.  The privilege of Ladies to pop the question expires with the 29th of February.” [Warren Gazette, March 8, 1872]

So, whence comes this “Ladies’ Privilege”?  It is simply amazing the stories you can find!

In 1865, The Illustrated Almanack printed the following, and it still makes the rounds on the Internet: “The ladies' leap year privilege took its origin in the following manner :—By an ancient act of the Scottish Parliament, passed about the year 1228, it was ‘ordonit that during ye reign of her maist blessit maiestie, Margeret, ilk for the yeare knowne as lepe yeare, ilka maiden ladee of baith high and lowe estait, shall hae libertie to speak ye man she likes. Gif he refuses to tak hir to bee his wyf, he schale be mulct in the sum of ane hundridty pundis, or less, as his estait may bee, except and alwais, gif he can make it appeare that he is betrothit to anither woman, then he schal be free.’"

[first hint that something is not quite right here: There was no ‘blessit majestie Margaret’ in 1228]

This story was republished throughout the 19th century with a few changes here and there – sometimes it was during the reign of “hys maist blissit mageste” and sometimes the year changed to 1288 and sometimes the fine went from £100 to £1, and sometimes the spelling (always atrocious) changed.

It makes a fine mental picture to imagine those brae burly Scots nobles taking time out of their usual pursuits (like warring on the English) to make a law giving ladies the privilege in Leap Year.

"So, waddya guys think about this leap year business?"

Besides which, as Walsh says in his Handy-book of Literary Curiosities, “At all events, the imitation of old English is too modern for the year 1228.” [Or ’88, for that matter.]


The original "Kiss me, I'm Irish"
A nicer grandmother’s tale, more often utilized than the Improbable History of the Scots, is the one in which Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid are the actors.  This version comes from Curiosities of Popular Customs (1898): 

“As St. Patrick was perambulating the shores of Lough Neagh, after having driven the frogs out of the bogs and the snakes out of the grass, he was accosted by St. Bridget, who with many tears and lamentations informed him that dissension had arisen among the ladies in her nunnery over the fact that they were debarred the privilege of "popping the question."

It will be remembered that in Bridget's day celibacy, although approved by the Church as the proper life of a religious, and consequently made binding upon the individual by a private vow, was not enforced as a general and absolute rule for the clergy.

St. Patrick—a sternly single man himself—was yet so far moved that he offered to concede to the ladies the privilege of proposing one year in every seven. But at this St. Bridget demurred, and, throwing her arms about his neck, exclaimed, "Arrah! Pathrick, jewel, I daurn't go back to the gurls wid such a proposal. Mek it wan year in four."

To which St. Patrick replied, "Biddy, acushla, squeeze me that way again, and I'll give you leap-year, the longest one of the lot."

St. Bridget, thus encouraged, bethought herself of her own husbandless condition, and accordingly popped the question to St. Patrick herself.  But he had taken the vow of celibacy: so he had to patch up the difficulty as best he could with a kiss and a silk gown.

"And ever since then," concludes the legend, which, it is needless to say, is not found in Butler's "Lives of the Saints" or in any other work of hagiological authority, "if a man refuses a leap-year proposal he must pay the penalty of a silk gown and a kiss."

Well, it is all a light-hearted thing of the past.  The Modern Woman is not constrained by waiting for Leap Year before asking the man of her dreams if he will honor her with his heart and hand (while keeping the bridal magazines out of sight but instantly available).  She pounces when she can.