One of the most famous Leap Year traditions is women may propose to men during this period. According to custom if they are rejected they can claim a silk gown as compensation. One of the people apparently responsible for this is Queen Margaret of Scotland (1286-1290). In 1288 a law was passed in Scotland stating … “during the rein of hir maist blissit Megeste… at lepe yeare, a mayden ladye shal hae liberte to bespeke ye man she like, albeit he refuses to taik hir to be his lawful wyfe, he shall be mulcted in ye sum of ane pundis…”

(It is worth noting that:-

  • Queen Margaret who was living in Norway at the time, was only 5 when this law was passed.
  • This Queen Margaret of Scotland is not the same Queen Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093) who was canonised in 1250 as St Margaret and whose name we have borrowed for our own small corner of paradise.)

We are at the beginning of a Leap Year with 366 days to look forward to rather than the standard 365 and this is the week when the additional day makes its appearance — 29th February.

Leap Year Postcard 1908

Leap Years, or Intercalary or bissextile years as they are known in the scientific community, come every 4 years. The reason they do so is to keep our calendar year in sync with the astronomical year – the time that the Earth takes to circle the Sun. A calendar year – or common year as scientists have it – lasts 365 days, but the astronomical year lasts 365 days and a bit. The bit is about 6 hours or to be precise – 365.2422 days. If we didn’t insert (or intercalate) that additional day every 4 years the calendar year and the astronomical year would eventually be so far apart we would celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer and take our holidays in the depths of winter.

In common years (see above) a day of the month which falls on a Monday will fall on Tuesday the next year and so on. Therefore if your birthday is on a Monday it will be on a Tuesday the next year. In a Leap Year if your birthday was on a Monday it will ‘leap’ over Tuesday to Wednesday- and that is why it is called a “Leap Year.”

A person who is born on February 29 may be called a “leapling”, “leap year baby” or “leaper”. In non-leap years, most leaplings celebrate their birthday on either February 28th or March 1st, while others only observe their birthday on the authentic intercalary date February 29th. (I think that they do this to be awkward or to fool people by saying that they are 6 when they are actually 24. The downside of all this is they cannot buy an alcoholic drink in a pub until they are 72 or pick up their State Pension until they are 260. This last situation will be of great interest to the Government.)

For legal purposes the birthday of a ‘leapling’ in England and Wales in common years is March 1st. In New Zealand and Taiwan it is February 28th. This is how it is defined in ‘Article 121 of the Civil Code Part 1 – General Principles of Taiwan’.

“If a period fixed by weeks, months, and years does not commence from the beginning of a week, month, or year, it ends with the ending of the day which proceeds the day of the last week, month, or year which corresponds to that on which it began to commence. But if there is no corresponding day in the last month, the period ends with the ending of the last day of the last month.”

Pirates Poster

Perhaps the most famous’ leapling’ is Frederic, the hero of ‘The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty’ by Gilbert and Sullivan. He is apprenticed to a band of kind hearted pirates. On his 21st birthday, just as he is about to be released from his apprenticeship, he discovers that he was born on the 29th February – and so technically only has a birthday every 4 years. Bound by his indentures and a sense of duty it means that Frederic must remain apprenticed to the pirates for another 63 years! Fortunately his sweetheart Mabel agrees to wait for him.

woman proposing

Queen Margaret’s …“at lepe yeare, a mayden ladye shal hae liberte to bespeke ye man she like…” law of 1288 was observed in other countries. A similar law was passed in France and it became legal practise in Genoa and Florence in the 15th century. In Denmark the custom is that women may propose to men on February 24th and if refused may claim 12 pairs of gloves. In Finland the proposal has to be made on the actual leap day, 29th February, and if refused the man has to compensate the woman with enough fabric to make a skirt. In Greece it is considered very unlucky to get married during a leap year and according to some sources I in 5 engaged couples actively avoid marrying in a leap year… Having said that in the current economic climate I would imagine that most engaged couples in Greece have other things on their mind.

If you want to see if you were born in a Leap Year or are just generally curious about Leap Years Microsoft offers this method for working them out….

 Feb 29

To determine whether a year is a leap year, follow these steps:

  1. If the year is evenly divisible by 4, go to step 2. Otherwise, go to step 5.
  2. If the year is evenly divisible by 100, go to step 3. Otherwise, go to step 4.
  3. If the year is evenly divisible by 400, go to step 4. Otherwise, go to step 5.
  4. The year is a leap year (it has 366 days).
  5. The year is not a leap year (it has 365 days).
30 days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have 31,
Excepting February alone.
Which only has but 28 days clear
And 29 in each leap year

— from Martyn Day