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Reflections: Do you celebrate on leap day?

Do you celebrate on leap day?
By William L. Bulla
Weekly Contributing Writer

Are you a "leapling"? Or a "leaper"? Persons born on leap day, February 29, are called "leaplings" or "leapers." One of my grandsons is a "leapling". He was born 44-years ago, and this year he will actually celebrate his birthday on February 29 for the eleventh time.
Even though it may be fun to rib them for enjoying 75 percent fewer birthdays than the rest of us over the course of their lives, they do have the special privilege, between leap years, of celebrating their nativity a full day earlier, or a day later, if they so choose.
Five thousand years ago the Egyptians divided the year into twelve months and each month is divided into a certain number of days. Three years out of every four, a year has 365 days in it. In the fourth year, there are 366 days. This is a leap year. Every leap year an extra day is added to the month of February. Normally, February has 28 days in it, but in a leap year it has 29 days.
The purpose of this is to make up the difference between the calendar year and the solar year. It is convenient for us in daily life to go by a calendar year of 365 days. The solar year, which measures time by the movement of the Earth round the Sun, is actually 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds long.
About two thousand years ago, the Romans found that, with a year of only 365 days, after a while festivals were not keeping in line with the seasons. To remedy this, Julius Caesar added an extra day for every fourth year. In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII made the system even more accurate by ruling that centurial years (e.g.: 1700, 1800, 1900, etc.) should not be treated as leap years unless they were divisible by 400. So there was not a 29th February in 1900 but there was in the year 2000.
In many of today's cultures, it is okay for a woman to propose marriage to a man. Society doesn't look down on such women. However, that hasn't always been the case. When the rules of courtship were stricter, women were only allowed to pop the question on one day every four years. That day was February 29th.
It is believed this tradition was started in 5th century Ireland when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait for so long for a man to propose. As the story goes, St. Patrick was approached by St. Bridget, who had come to protest on behalf of all women the unfairness of always having to wait for men to propose marriage. After due consideration, St. Patrick offered St. Bridget and her gender the special privilege of being able to pop the question one year out of every seven. Some haggling ensued, and the frequency ultimately settled upon was one year out of four - leap years, specifically - an outcome which satisfied both parties. Then, unexpectedly, it being a leap year and St. Bridget being single, she got down on one knee and proposed to St. Patrick on the spot. He refused, of course, bestowing on her a kiss and a beautiful silk gown in consolation.
The first documentation of this practice as English Law dates back to 1288, when Scotland supposedly passed a law that allowed women to propose marriage to the man of their choice in that year. Tradition states they also made it law that any man who declined a proposal in a leap year must pay a fine. The fine could range from a kiss, to payment for a silk dress or a pair of gloves.
In some places, Leap Day has been known as "Bachelors' Day" for the same reason. A man was expected to pay a penalty, such as a gown or money, if he refused a marriage proposal from a woman on Leap Day. During the Middle Ages there were laws governing this tradition.
In many European countries, especially in the upper classes of society, tradition dictates that any man who refuses a woman's proposal on February 29 has to buy her 12 pairs of gloves. The intention is that the woman can wear the gloves to hide the embarrassment of not having an engagement ring.
Today, there's a common misconception that February 29th is Sadie Hawkins Day. Although that isn't the case, February 29th does hold significance for women, thanks to that old Irish tradition started by St. Bridget. Sadie Hawkins Day is rooted in the story of Sadie Hawkins, a character created by Al Capp in the comic strip Li'l Abner. Described as "the homeliest gal in the hills," Sadie was unable get a date; so her father, a prominent citizen in the town of Dogpatch, named a day after her to help Sadie get a man. On Sadie Hawkins Day, a footrace was held in Dogpatch so the women could pursue the town's eligible bachelors. According to the Li'l Abner website, Sadie Hawkins Day is an unspecified date in November which Al Capp observed in his comic strip for four decades.
No one seems to know how the two traditions became merged, but Sadie Hawkins Day is now generally accepted as February 29. So not only are the leaplings celebrating February's Leap Day, but also there may be women celebrating new engagement rings, silk gowns or gloves!

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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