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Color illustration of a woman kneeling to kiss the hand of a person wearing a dress and tall white wig on a throne. A crowd of other women wait to the side.

In this print from 1820, A Leap Year drawing room, or the pleasures of petticoat government, King George IV is dressed as a woman, sitting in a parlor greeting his female guests.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  • Why Things Go Topsy-Turvy on February 29: Origins and Lore of Leap Day

    We’re just barely two months into 2024, and it’s already looking like a year of weirdness throughout the United States. On January 5, a Boeing 737-9 Max airplane experienced the “in-flight separation of a door plug,” as a gaping hole suddenly appeared in the passenger cabin while 16,000 feet in the air. On January 26, the Washington, D.C. area hit eighty degrees—the first time it’s ever been that hot in January since weather records began in 1872. And at some point in January, a rat-shaped hole in a Chicago sidewalk went viral on social media.

    So, it should come as no surprise that 2024 is also a year when our calendars bulge weirdly with a day that is normally not there: February 29, or Leap Day.

    If you’re reasonably familiar with astronomy, you may know that the Earth does not complete its orbit of the sun in exactly 365 days but rather 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 56 seconds. If our calendars did not regularly account for those extra 348-plus minutes each year, our seasons would eventually shift dramatically. Over the course of a single century, our calendars would be off by 25 days a year. Over the course of some seven centuries, everything would flip. The Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice would occur in June and the summer solstice in December.

    So, to avoid a world turned upside down, the Julian calendar, promulgated by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE, added one day every four years. The Julian calendar was an improvement, but it over-corrected the problem by creating still another misalignment with too many Leap Years. To fix the problem, the calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 reduced the number by letting years that are not evenly divisible by 400 keep the usual 365 days. For the arithmetically challenged, this means that there were 366 days in 2000, but only 365 days in 1700, 1800, and 1900, and likewise in the years 2100, 2200, and 2300 to come.

    But why do we add Leap Day to the end of February and not to December when the year ends? The answer is that the yearly cycle for many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere historically began with the birth of springtime in March and ended with a bleaker winter in February. The Latin-derived names for September, October, November, and December mean seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, which relegated January and February as the eleventh and twelfth when the Romans added those months to the calendar. The Gregorian calendar of 1582 officially established January as the first month of the new year and February as the second month, but still stuck with a variable length of twenty-eight or twenty-nine days.   

    The bottom line is that Leap Day has long been a source of contention and confusion, signaling to us that things are not quite right. When February 29 arrives (almost) every four years, folk customs reinforce its significance as a day when we overturn the ordinary rules and customs; a day when many things go topsy-turvy.  

    For instance, in many Western societies, the longstanding custom is that men propose marriage, leaving women to either accept or decline. But, according to folk belief, Leap Day give us license to overturn the custom.

    One Irish legend claims that St. Brigid of Kildare complained to St. Patrick (he of March 17 fame) that women should periodically have the right to ask men for their hand in marriage. Patrick suggested once every seven years, to which Brigid countered once every four years—so why not on Leap Day? Leap Year (2010), a silly romantic comedy film, borrows from this Irish legend to send Anna Brady (played by Amy Adams) to Dublin, where she intends to propose marriage to her workaholic boyfriend of four years. (Don’t bother, says Rotten Tomatoes.)

    Other sources trace the custom to the Leap Year of 1288, when either the Scottish Parliament or Queen Margaret passed a law that allowed women to propose marriage on February 29. In some versions, the woman had to wear a red petticoat to signal her intentions; in other versions, the man who declined the proposal had to pay a fine or buy the woman a gift. Similar laws appeared in other parts of Europe, including England, where a book titled Courtship, Love, and Matrimonie (1606) claimed Leap Years are when “the ladyes have the sole privilege . . . of making love unto the men, which they doe either by words or lookes, as to them it seemeth proper; and, moreover, no man will be entitled to the benefit of clergy who dothe refuse to accept the offers of a ladye, or who dothe in any wise treate her proposal withe slight or contumely.”

    Many of those European customs came to the United States along with European immigrants, but they developed into variants that were distinctly American. For instance, in 1860, the distinguished philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson received a letter from his daughter Ellen, which described a Leap Year Party as follows:

    The girls take the part which gentlemen usually take … The boys all sat round the room, the girls didn’t sit down and when a cotillion was announced they walked up to the boys and asked if they might have the pleasure of dancing with them and offered their arms, which the boys took and walk out. After the dance they promenaded leaning on the girls’ arms and being fanned. It was very funny and they all had a rousing time.

    In the early twentieth century, Leap Year postcards kept the tradition alive, but seemingly without the good-natured, mutually enjoyable pleasures described by Ellen Emerson. According to “‘Glittering Mockery’: Twentieth-Century Leap Year Marriage Proposals” (2012), by Prof. Katherine Parkin of Monmouth University, postcard manufacturers produced several million Leap Year postcards, many of them portraying women on the hunt for men to marry on February 29. However, according to Parkin, the cards’ humor was distinctly antiromantic, portraying the women as “domineering” and “unattractive aggressors,” which thereby reinforced “men’s anxiety toward the institution of marriage.”

    Illustrated postcard of a woman with a huge hand chasing a man, with the words, Help! They're after me! In the top right corner in red script, It's Leap Year.
    Artwork by Clare Victor Dwiggins, courtesy of Leap Year Postcard Database, Department of History and Anthropology, Monmouth University
    Illustrated postcard of a boy hanging in a tree and a woman knitting a sock on the ground. In the top right corner in red script, It's Leap Year.
    Artwork by Clare Victor Dwiggins, courtesy of Leap Year Postcard Database, Department of History and Anthropology, Monmouth University
    Illustrated postcard of a woman in a black robber's mask carrying a spiky club, hiding behind a tree as a man passes by. Words read, Sh-ss-h! Here comes one! In the top right corner in red script, It's Leap Year.
    Artwork by Clare Victor Dwiggins, courtesy of Leap Year Postcard Database, Department of History and Anthropology, Monmouth University
    Illustrated postcard of a woman trying to grab a man from behind a tall tree trunk. Text reads, Don't go round and round - leap over and grab him. In the top right corner in red script, It's Leap Year.
    Artwork by Clare Victor Dwiggins, courtesy of Leap Year Postcard Database, Department of History and Anthropology, Monmouth University

    Starting in the early 1930s, three Illinois cities west of Chicago—Aurora, Joliet, and Morris—used the topsy-turviness of February 29 as a day for women to replace men as police officers, firefighters, and city-council members. According to Libby Nelson in Vox, women “used the day to jokingly arrest, jail, and fine unmarried men,” but their ultimate motive was to find a husband. Nelson observed,

    For a tradition founded entirely on a sexist stereotype—that the only possible use a woman could have for political power would be to flirt with unmarried men—it proved surprisingly enduring. The last time Aurora handed over its municipal government to women on February 29 came in 1984.

    We may hope that in the early twenty-first century, when there is no topsy-turviness to women working as civil servants, our Leap Day traditions will still signal moments when extraordinary activities may replace the ordinary. One widely circulated spoof from February 1996 joked that February 29 was the day when “the internet must be shut down for 24 hours in order to allow us to clean it. The cleaning process, which eliminates dead mail and inactive ftp, www and gopher sites, allows for a better-working and faster internet.” But this seems more appropriate for April 1 than February 29.

    Surely, folk tradition will come up with more weird customs for us to observe on February 29. And who knows what other weirdness might happen during the final ten months of 2024? Might Bigfoot leave its footprint on a sidewalk in Denver? Might we start talking to our pets using CatGPT and other forms of artificial intelligence? Might the moon even eclipse the sun, turning day into night?  

    James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He regrets that he was born too late to experience the Leap-less year of 1900 and that he will not be around in 2100 for the next Shoulda-Been-a Leap Year.

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