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February 29 is Leap Year Day – an exciting day for women seeking husbands, but a dodgy day to be born, says Tony Barrell


For most people, leap years are a slight inconvenience. If your birthday is in March or in any of the months after that, you’ll have to wait an extra day to celebrate it, because February is one day longer than usual. But spare a thought for the people who were born on Leap Year Day itself, February 29 – who are traditionally known as “leaplings”. These Piscean freaks only have a real birthday every four years: three years out of four, most of them choose to celebrate their birthdays on February 28 or March 1 – both of which are other people’s birthdays, so they’re basically gatecrashers.

February 29 people also have to suffer the same joke over and over again. It goes like this: as they have only one birthday every four years, they’re a quarter of the age of people born on normal days. Usually, a young man who has been on the planet for 18 full years can walk into a pub in Britain and expect to be served with a pint of beer. But if he was born on Leap Year Day, he is only four or five birthdays old and shouldn’t be touching the stuff.

And pity poor Frederic in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, who swears allegiance to a bunch of pirates until his 21st birthday. But after being released, he discovers that he’s a leapling, which means he’s not technically a free man until sometime in his eighties, if he lives that long.

If you’re an embryo thinking of entering the world on February 29, I’d advise hanging on a bit longer

Why do fictional Frederic and many real-life people have to suffer like this? Well, scientific types will explain – often at length – that our calendar is imperfect, because our planet takes more than a year to go round the sun (it actually takes 365 days plus 5 hours, 48 minutes and 46 seconds), so centuries ago it was decreed that we slot in this extra day every four years to balance the books, as it were. If you’re an embryo and you’re thinking of entering the world on that extra day, I’d advise hanging on a bit longer.

What makes it worse for the leaplings is that their special day has been hijacked by ladies seeking husbands

You don’t hear of many famous leaplings, because these babies only pop out at four-year intervals, so celebrated leaplings have a much smaller catchment to emerge from. The composer Rossini, the bandleader Jimmy Dorsey, the cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford and the rapper Ja Rule seem to be the brightest shining lights born on February 29, unless you’re a big fan of Anna Lee, who founded the Shaker movement, or of David Briggs, a record producer who worked on a long string of albums by Neil Young. Naturally, world events commemorated on February 29 are also thinner on the ground than usual – though it was the date in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American recipient of an Oscar, for her role in Gone with the Wind. And 20 years later, it was the date when the very first Playboy Club opened, complete with Bunnies – in downtown Chicago.

What makes it worse for the lonely leaplings is that their special day has been hijacked by ladies seeking husbands, thanks to the custom that women are allowed to propose marriage to men on February 29. This tradition allegedly goes back to ancient times in Ireland, when two saints were having a lively discussion and St Bridget moaned to St Patrick about women having to wait interminably for men to drop down on one knee. Canny Patrick gave her this once-every-four-years date to play with, which was slightly more generous than “once in a blue moon” or the Twelfth of Never.

There are plenty of sexist cartoons depicting predatory women pursuing terrified bachelors

This Leap Year Day convention was enshrined in law in Scotland in 1288 (but only because naughty ladies had previously been proposing on other February days as well). And for some silly reason, it became the done thing for Scottish women to wear partly visible red petticoats under their dresses when they popped the question.

The custom of female proposals on Leap Year Day has since spread to many countries around the globe. Greetings-card designers have had a lot of fun with it over the years, and there are plenty of sexist old cartoons depicting predatory women armed with nets, lassos and guns pursuing terrified bachelors. If the sexes were reversed in these illustrations, the scenes would be horrifying and unacceptable.

All the same, if you’re a confirmed bachelor, you might need to watch your step on Leap Year Day. I’m also concerned that some of the “men” proposed to may be significantly less than marriageable age, if February 29 happens to be their birthday as well. 

Tony Barrell has been published by HarperCollins, Omnibus Press, ACC Art Books, News UK and Godknowswhoelse.

© 2016 Tony Barrell

February 27, 2016

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About the Author

Tony Barrell is a pop historian, journalist, editor and Londoner who has spent much of his life interviewing musicians. He has written many major articles for The Sunday Times and other publications. His 2017 work The Beatles on the Roof is the first book to be published about the Fab Four’s famous 1969 rooftop concert.

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