Once upon a time, when the rules of courtship were strict, and a woman could only wait for a man to get a clue and propose marriage, tradition had it that during a leap year a woman could propose to her tardy and reluctant male. According to legend the custom grew up in Ireland, where St. Patrick allowed women this opportunity every four years, after St. Brigid complained to him that the girls were having to wait too long for marriage. Another legend attributes the custom to Scotland, where Queen Margaret decreed that during leap year a maiden could make the first move and snare the man she admired.
There is no evidence for either of these stories, but the tradition of a leap year proposal was a popular legend. It became a humorous trope employed by storytellers, cartoonists (think Al Capp and Sadie Hawkins), and versemakers like Pres Longley. The idea may have faded away in today’s society, but in the 19th and early 20th century it had great currency.
Here is a Leap Year verse from Pres Longley, the Bard of Butte..
THE LAST HOUR OF LEAP YEAR
A youth and a maiden sat closely together,
And passed off the time in discussing the weather.
It was chilly without, but the grate was aglow—
Thomas mildly remarked that he thought we’d have snow.
Susie quickly opposed him in words that were plain,
And thought it most likely we’d have a small rain;
But she soon changed the subject, in tones that were bland,
And placed on his shoulder her little brown hand.
“You know, my dear Tom, ere an hour hath sped,
That this old year will slumber and sleep with the dead,
And before it recedes from my grasp and my sight,
I wish to assume a small feminine right.
Will you marry me, Thomas?” “I declare that is cool.
No, Susie, I can’t. Do you think I’m a fool?”
“You won’t? You’re a brute!” He arose from his chair,
But left in her grasp quite a handful of hair.
Pres Longley, 1873