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A Leap Day tradition with a dark side

A Leap Day tradition with a dark side
A Leap Day tradition with a dark side

The calendar blip has led to some unusual rituals in past decades.

Bernd Weibrod / picture alliance / Getty

February 29, 2024, 6:30 PM ET

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A calendar is a site of order. What happens when that order gets disrupted?

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Quadrennial Blip

February 29 is a blip in the normal flow of time. The date may not appear on dropdown menus or at the DMV; it may scramble pay stubs or confound bartenders checking IDs. It has, over the years, inspired creativity and transgression. And folklore has it that the leap year—and particularly Leap Day—was once the only time when women had social permission to propose marriage to men. The tradition, which some contend has roots in fifth-century Ireland, enabled women (and men) to “try on this other gender, with the assurance that the next day everything’s put back in order,” Katherine Parkin, a historian at Monmouth University, told me.

Although on its face the concept promotes equality, it’s actually a case of “false empowerment,” Parkin argues. The tradition, she said, was “centered on introducing this idea that women could propose marriage—and then denigrating the women who did it.” Parkin has studied a trove of early-20th-century postcards that illustrate the Leap Day–proposal ritual. The cards, which were in wide circulation in the early 1900s, portray many of the women proposing marriage as violent and monstrous figures, chasing frightened men and wielding weapons. The perverse scenes reinforce the idea that the Leap Day proposal is a freak occurrence, an exception to the rule. After one opportunity to break free, Parkin explained, “the topsy-turvy-ness is going to be righted.”

The tradition—alongside the sexist postcards—has since faded (though the 2010 movie Leap Year, in which Amy Adams travels to Ireland to propose, dramatized the concept). Today, a woman proposing doesn’t seem so transgressive that it requires its own holiday. But it is still unusual. As Ashley Fetters wrote in The Atlantic in 2020, “While marriage itself has grown to be a more gender-flexible and egalitarian institution, the proposal ritual has remained stubbornly, stagnantly male-driven.”

The leap day exists in large part to maintain the order of the calendar during all other years (it takes the Earth about 365.24 days to orbit the sun). Yet there’s something about the infrequency of the day that encourages playfulness and experimentation. And although the leap-day proposal tradition was not actually all that subversive, the quadrennial calendar blip could open other opportunities for breaking out of the confines of normal life.

Leap Day is not a holiday in the traditional sense, or a designated festive day (unless you are among the estimated 5 million living people who celebrate their birthday on February 29). It’s such a non-holiday that a classic 30 Rock episode rests on the premise of what would happen if Leap Day did have its own rituals. Free of religious or class associations, Parkin suggested, Leap Days are fair game for everyone to enjoy. The day also resists commercialization, likely in part because cashing in on an event that comes once every four years is a tough business strategy.

Parkin’s Leap Day expertise enables her to take a long view of the day. This year, she said, she has been observing a great deal of joy. People are having weddings; a group of leaplings, or those born on February 29, are on a birthday cruise; fans of 30 Rock are having parties themed around the Leap Day episodes. Leap Day festivities, Parkin said, show a real desire “to celebrate the unusual.”


Today’s News

  1. Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinian civilians as a crowd attempted to receive aid in Gaza. More than 100 were killed, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health; Israeli officials contended that most of the deaths occurred in a stampede, and that the open fire was in response to a perceived threat.
  2. President Joe Biden and Donald Trump both visited the southern border today. Biden met with U.S. Border Patrol agents in Brownsville, Texas, and Trump met Governor Greg Abbott and the president of the National Border Patrol Council in Eagle Pass, Texas.
  3. The House approved a stopgap bill to avert a partial government shutdown before tomorrow night’s deadline. The Senate will now vote on the bill.


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Evening Read

An illustration of a tattered sticker with footprints and the text "keep your distance"
Illustration by Matteo Giuseppe Pani. Source: Getty.

The Pandemic’s ‘Ghost Architecture’ Is Still Haunting Us

By Yasmin Tayag

Last Friday, in a bathroom at the Newark airport, I encountered a phrase I hadn’t seen in a long time: “Stop the spread.” It accompanied an automatic hand-sanitizing station, which groaned weakly when I passed my hand beneath it, dispensing nothing. Presumably set up in the early pandemic, the sign and dispenser had long ago become relics. Basically everyone seemed to ignore them. Elsewhere in the terminal, I spotted prompts to “Maintain a safe distance and reduce overcrowding,” while maskless passengers sat elbow-to-elbow in waiting areas and mobbed the gates.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

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Christopher Anderson / Magnum

Read. In Édouard Louis’ latest book, Change, revisiting the past is an act of survival.

Listen. On the Radio Atlantic podcast, Hanna Rosin talks with Kara Swisher about the lost boys of Big Tech.

Play our daily crossword.

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

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