Women proposing and other leap day, month or year traditions around the world

February 29 is celebrated – and shunned – in various ways across cultures

Women proposing to their partners is one of the best-known leap day traditions. Getty Images
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The planet Earth takes approximately 365.25 days to orbit the Sun. Using the Gregorian calendar, this leaves an extra quarter of a day to squeeze in every year.

Enter February 29 – the full-day compromise that rolls around every four years and ensures the months keep somewhat in line with the seasons.

And when leap day comes around, one well-known tradition is that women can unabashedly propose to their partners. This is thanks in part to popular culture; case in point, the 2010 movie Leap Year, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.

Set in Ireland, the film nods to one origin theory dating back to Brigid of Kildare, a sixth-century nun, asking Saint Patrick for a chance for women to pursue suitors.

Another theory credits Queen Margaret of Scotland for reportedly passing a law in 1288 allowing women to pop the question to men on February 29. Men who refused were hit with a fine, consisting of a new gown or set of gloves for the lady in question – although no legal record exists.

Perhaps the most famous leap year tradition in the West, it’s by no means the only one worldwide. With ancient calendars even marking out entire leap months, instead of days, the rituals to mark the occasion, beliefs and traditions vary around the globe.

A festival for leap day babies in the US

If you happen to be born on February 29 – the chances of which are one in 1,461, so less than 0.07 per cent of the world’s population – then heading to the US might be just the birthday ticket you need.

Self-declared as the Leap Year Capital of the World, a small town called Anthony on the Texas-New Mexico border takes to celebrating the day with a festival. Leapers (people born on leap day) travel from around the globe to join in the celebrations at the Anthony Texas Leapers Festival.

This year, the event begins with an invite-only dinner for leapers on the Thursday, followed by two days of musical performances. The festival was thought up in 1988 by neighbours Mary Ann Brown and Birdie Lewis, who both share the rare birthday.

Sending pastries and shoes in China

While China follows the Gregorian calendar, its mainstay holidays centre on the traditional lunisolar calendar. It combines the cycles of the Sun and the Moon to form the months and years.

To account for those 365.25 days per year, the traditional Chinese calendar creates an entire extra month. Across 19 years, leap months are added to a normal year seven times. This is determined by the number of new moons.

So how is this extra month marked when it does come around? In Henan province, some daughters mark the occasion by making goose-shaped pastries for their parents to wish them good fortune.

An old legend surrounds this tradition. It tells the story of a young girl travelling through the mountains to deliver food to her elderly parents during the leap month. Falling along the treacherous route, she wakes up to find the millet she had prepped has gone, but two wild geese are by her side.

Arriving at her village to see her impoverished parents, she feeds the geese to her parents who recover from an illness and later feeds the village to nurse them back to health, too.

Giving parents gifts seems to be a popular theme. In south-east China, however, it is tradition for married daughters to give their mothers pigs trotters and noodles, the latter tied with red thread and flowers.

In some areas across the county, both sons and daughters buy shoes for their mothers and fathers as a thank you.

Giving birch trees in Germany

Rather than the additional day, this German leap year tradition takes place on April 30, which is the eve of a common European celebration called May Day.

In normal calendar years, men routinely showcase their affection for their romantic interest by placing small, decorated birch trees on their doorsteps overnight. The tradition dates back to the 17th century.

However, the ceremony is reversed during leap years and it is young women who use the occasion to give birch trees, particularly in the Rhineland-Palatinate state.

Additionally, dancing around the maypole is reserved on leap years for women during May Day celebrations.

Postponing weddings in Greece

Superstition has it that getting married – or even engaged – during a leap year is a bad omen for couples.

The belief is said to have been passed on from the Romans when they conquered Greece, as they thought that leap years bestowed bad fortune on people.

Marriage statistics in Greece over the past 30 years don’t fully demonstrate the belief is followed in modern times, although there is a noticeable dip in leap years.

Pandemic statistics aside, 49,632 married in 2016 – versus 53,672 the year previous and 50,138 the year after. Likewise, 49,710 couples married in 2012, versus 55,099 in 2011 and 53,256 in 2013.

Publishing a satirical newspaper in France

Most newspapers opt for a daily or weekly publication, but that’s not the case for La Bougie du Sapeur. Hitting the newsstands on leap days only, the comical broadsheet was launched in 1980 by friends Jacques de Buisson and Christian Bailly.

Inspired by a late 19th-century comic strip character Sapper Camembert – the newspaper's name translates to The Sapper’s Candle – it publishes humorous stories, satirical articles and even fake adverts.

Over the years, it has become a tradition to line up for and read the unique publication when February 29 rolls around.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 8:31 AM