Listen up, all you shy, love-sick folks of the female persuasion, today is leap day.
You know. Sadie Hawkins Day when it's OK to take the initiative and ask for the hand of that man you adore. We know, we know. It's really OK for you flirtatious women to pop the question any day of the year. It's equally OK for all you manly guys to be on the receiving end of the marriage proposal.
Or as an advocate of women's rights put it: "We've come a long way since Sadie Hawkins ran out of Dogpatch," said Pat Riviere, a Maryland legislative representative for the National Organization for Women.
But just in case there are any women who need that extra push to propose, tradition is on your side today, hon. It comes around only once every four years.
How and why leap day, and some say the entire leap year, became known as a time when women are sanctioned to propose to men is a bit unclear. As near as researchers can
figure, it could have begun with a man named Patrick and a
woman named Bridget.
Actually, it's St. Patrick and St. Bridget, and according to a very old Irish legend, they lived in 5th century Ireland. Bridget was in charge of a nunnery and she was upset at the prevailing tradition that women had to wait for the man to propose. The church did not require celibacy at the time.
Bridget approached Patrick, who obviously was a man of some authority, to talk about it. He said he would allow it during leap year because that would give women an extra day to propose. Bridget then promptly proposed to Patrick. He turned her down. The cad.
Scientifically speaking, leap year and leap day have absolutely nothing to do with who proposes to whom.
One day is added to the calendar every four years, so the Gregorian calendar stays in sync with the Earth's orbital period. That is, every four years except century years that aren't divisible by 400.
It has to be done, explained astronomer Dennis McCarthy, chief of Earth Orientation Parameters at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington. "If not, you would have July and it would be snowing," Dr. MaCarthy said. This is a leap year because of leap day, he added.
Leap year was first adopted by Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. and went into effect the following year. In the 16th century, Pope Gregory XIII had to fine-tune Caesar's calculations.
But back to the folklore. It's not clear how the following bit of history got connected with leap year but sometime in the Middle Ages, an unwritten law went into effect in the British Isles. Any single man who rejected a woman's proposal had to pay her with a kiss and a silk dress or a pair of gloves.
And in the year 1288, the Scottish Parliament passed a law
making it legal for "any maiden lady" to propose to a man of her choice. Women who were intending to propose had to show the hem of their red petticoats as a tip-off to men.
If the man didn't have a good enough reason for refusing, he was subject to a fine.
During the next few centuries, other countries passed and rescinded similar laws.
John McDowell, chairman of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University, has tried to make sense of the connection between the scientific reason for leap year and the folklore attached to it.
Looking back to history, Dr. McDowell found that the Maya Indians in Mexico had a calendar of 365 days, but they divided the days into 18 months of 20 days each.
"They would have five days left over. Those days were given over to festivities and celebrations," he said.
"Interestingly, that time was also given over to reversals," Dr. McDowell said, meaning that because the Mayas were released from their normal schedules, it was sort of an anything-goes atmosphere.
"The world could be turned upside down and you could do what you normally don't do," he said. "That would help explain that on leap day the woman would take the initiative. That's not the traditional way of doing things."
Leap year became "the suspension of the [normal] ways of doing things," agreed Charles Camp, the Maryland state folklorist who works for the Maryland State Arts Council. "The ordinary rules of public modesty were reversed," he said.
Such as women proposing to men.
As for who Sadie Hawkins was, she was the brainchild of cartoonist Al Capp. In the 1930s' comic strip, "Li'l Abner," a female character name Sadie Hawkins who lived in the fictional Dogpatch was having a rather tough time getting a man to propose to her.
Her father, the mayor of said fictional town, declared one day "Sadie Hawkins" day. The unmarried women in Dogpatch ran -- literally -- after unmarried men to propose on that day. Mr. Capp eventually dropped the story line in the 1970s.
So what does this folklore mean for us today? Nothing.
When you get right down to it, the extra day this year comes down to good news for many of us and bad news for some of us.
We'll get the bad news out of the way first: People who did not receive a raise in 1992 will have the same salary but see less money per paycheck if their annual pay is computed by dividing the number of days in the fiscal year. That's because there are 366 days instead of 365.
Now for the good news: For those who do not work on Saturdays and Sundays, get ready for a long Christmas weekend. Christmas, which was on a Wednesday in 1991, will leap over to a Friday this year.