Folklife: The Forgotten Custom of Women Proposing to Men During Leap Year

The custom of women proposing to men during Leap Year is traced back to a legend of St. Patrick. So girls get out your scarlet flannel petticoats and make a date with your local justice of the peace!  No worries fellas! You can blame the Scots for declaring it open season on bachelors.

Once upon a time, a nun by the name of St. Brigid of Kildare, a sort of early-day Susan B. Anthony, went to St. Patrick in distress stating that a disagreement had arisen among the women of her nunnery.  They were upset that women had been debarred the privilege of popping the question to men.  In St. Bridget’s days, celibacy was not enforced as an absolute rule for the clergy of the Catholic Church.  Saint Patrick offered to concede to the ladies the privilege of proposing every seven years. 

As the legend goes, St. Bridget threw her arms about his neck and exclaimed, “Arrah!  Patrick jewel, I daurn’t go back to the gurls wid such a proposal-mek it one year in four.”  Saint Patrick is said to have replied, “Biddy, squeeze me that way again and I’ll give you leap year, the longest one in the lot.”  It was then that St. Bridget, being without a husband herself, popped the question to Saint Patrick.  But Saint Patrick had already taken a vow of celibacy. So he had to patch up her wounded feelings with a kiss and a silken gown.  And ever since that time, according to legend, “If a man refuses a leap year proposal he must pay the penalty of a kiss and a silken gown.  This is probably a myth because this account cannot be found in any of St. Patrick’s writings, but the story has been recorded in several old books and must have been taken seriously in several countries.

Now generally considered a hoax and based on a law passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1288, the leap year tradition was enforced for a long time.  The law translated to English stated:

“It is a statute and ordained that during the reign of her blessed Majesty, Margaret, for every year known as leap year every maiden lady of both high and low estate shall have the liberty to bespeak the man she likes, and should he refuse to take her to be his lawful wife he shall be fined in a sum of pounds more or less as his estate may be large or small unless he can prove that he is already betrothed to another woman, in which case he may go free.”

The law gave the legal right for women to propose to men during a leap year.  Any man refusing was fined.  Scottish women intending to propose to the man of her choice was supposed to wear a red flannel petticoat visible several inches below the skirt.

Asheville Citizen-Times – December 27, 1959

As time went by, many other countries also adopted similar laws and Leap Year parties became very popular.  In merry old England, men would climb on barrels of liquor to drink to the health of the women they expected to propose to them.  In the United States, more than 2,000 men were fined as much as $5 dollars in Aurora, Illinois on February 29, 1972. Of course, this was all done in fun as a moneymaker for the local heart fund.  Despite the fines, most guys thought the idea was pretty cool.  From the early 1900s into the 1960s, it was not lady-like for a woman to propose to a man.  Society thought that women who proposed to men were desperate, aggressive and unfeminine. 

Advertisements and postcards joked about the leap year as an opportunity for marriage-hungry single women to pressure men into marrying them.  

Leap Year Postcards from 1908.
Rocky Mount Telegram – February 29, 1960

Another Leap Year custom goes back to the old time saying, “A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”  Leap Year cakes and candies became very popular with Leap Year parties and celebrations.  Leap Year cakes were traditionally angel food cake with pink frosting topped with tiny rings, a little heart and a miniature thimble hidden inside the cake.

The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) – February 26, 1980

Over time, the idea of women asking men out on a date became favorable for men.  Most men thought it would teach girls what it was like to have to fork out the cash for a night on the town.  The tradition of women proposing to men during Leap Year faded as marriages and relationships became more egalitarian during the 1970s.  Women were becoming more liberated and did not hesitate to ask men on dates. Even more so women became less interested in marriages. 

Leap Year proposals used to be a time-honored tradition, but the modern woman of today takes the idea less seriously than the ancient maidens of Scotland.  In fact, young ladies today probably are not aware of the old tradition anymore, much like the Sadie Hawkins Day customs.  Times have changed and a Leap Year Proposals no longer carry the weight it once did.  In Ireland, February 29th or Leap Day is now known as Bachelor’s Day.

The tradition of women proposing to men during Leap Year in 1916. Photo Courtesy of

Leap year is still a year of proposals and promises.  Only the characters have changed for both men and women. Husband hunting women have been replaced by vote-seeking politicians.  Perhaps it’s more than a coincidence that Leap Year is also an election year. Politicians fly banners of good intentions and promises instead of wearing red petticoats.  It’s a good thing the voters aren’t fined or punished for turning down the first political proposal that comes along.

Hope Thompson
Hope Thompson

Hope Thompson is the editor and publisher of Unmasked History Magazine. She has been a freelance journalist for seven years and has published articles for popular media websites such as Her focus has been on the hidden history, Native American culture, activism, Appalachian and Southern folklore traditions.

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One thought on “Folklife: The Forgotten Custom of Women Proposing to Men During Leap Year”

  1. I didn’t know this but in high school we had Sadie Hawkins Day where the girls asked boys out to the dance and came by and picked them up up for the date…..

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