Leap Year traditions in Europe

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Every four years, an extra day is tacked on to the month of February, and that’s exactly what’s happening in 2020. As the earth needs precisely 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds to complete its revolution around the sun, the measure ensures our calendars remain in sync with the seasons. When the date of February 29 rolls around, many of the old conventions are tossed aside, and just like back home in the good old U.S.A., proposing to a man becomes a women’s prerogative.

How did this tradition come to pass? An albeit rather unlikely explanation traces its roots back to 5th century Ireland, when the Christian nun St. Brigid of Kildare is said to have complained to St. Patrick that women were compelled to wait far too long for men to propose to them. St. Patrick decided that every seven years, women would be permitted to do the proposing. St. Brigid is alleged to have put up a counter-offer, suggesting their proposals could take place on Leap Days, to which St. Patrick agreed. The legend goes on to suggest that St. Brigid then proposed to St. Patrick, who declined her offer, instead giving her a kiss on the cheek and a silk gown to lessen the sting of his refusal.

The practice of offering gifts to a woman whose proposal was rebuffed lives on in the lore of many European countries. In Finland, the man who turned a lady down would have to pay a fine in an amount that would buy her the fabric for a new skirt. In Denmark, the counter-offer to a woman refused was 12 pairs of gloves. A female spurned in England might walk away with a silk dress.

Another peculiar tradition surrounding marriage proposals was seen in Scotland, where convention called for any woman planning to propose to her beloved to wear a red petticoat, clearly visible to her object of affection upon her approach.

No matter which sex it is that does the proposing, not just Feb. 29 but the entire year in which one falls is considered unlucky when it comes to getting married in Greece. Such unions are believed more likely than usual to end in divorce.

In Italy, the gloom and doom associated with a leap year isn’t limited to the institution of marriage. Old adages reflect the idea that life’s most important undertakings are best avoided in such a year.

So what’s a good way to spend your February 29 bonus day if you’re not planning to propose or spend the day in hiding to avoid someone popping the question to you? We’re not sure, but as the day falls on a Saturday in 2020, you’re bound to find something good!

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