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The Ladies' Privilege: Encouraging Women to Propose on Leap Day

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Even with all the strides towards equality that women have made in the past hundred years, it's still fairly uncommon for a woman to propose to a man. But a century ago, proposals by women were not only acceptable, they were a common occurrence—at least on February 29th.

How did it start?

The legend goes that St. Bridget of Ireland was frustrated that all the non-nun ladies in 5th century Ireland had to sit around waiting for proposals that might never come. She complained about it to St. Patrick who, probably impressed by Bridget’s ability to turn her used bathwater into beer, finally proclaimed that women could have the chance to propose themselves once every four years on the leap day. This became known as “The Ladies’ Privilege.”

Another part of the legend says that in 1288, Queen Margaret of Scotland made it law that any man who dared turn down a proposal must pay his girlfriend a fine. Different sources say this fine took the form of a kiss, a silk gown, expensive gloves, or simply cold hard cash.

As fun as the story is, it is almost certainly not true.

Despite decades of searching, no record of such a law has been found. (It would have been difficult for Margaret to write the law anyway, as she was five years old in 1288.)

A later legend said that refusing meant perpetual bad fortune for the man. A more recent old wives tale said that women who planned on proposing during a leap year must wear a bright red petticoat to do it, presumably to give the gentleman some warning. Since red petticoats went in and out of fashion all the time, this must have caused unfortunate confusion.

What is true is that leap years, and particularly leap days, were considered such a ridiculous anomaly that many odd traditions sprung up around them. A play from the 1600s states that women can ditch their dresses and wear “breeches” in a leap year. Babies conceived or born on leap day were considered to be especially lucky. Leap years were thought to be the best time to start a new business. And because it wasn’t a “real” day and normal societal rules did not apply, February 29th was the only acceptable day for women to propose.

Despite the claim that the tradition goes back 1,600 years, no mention of actual gender-reversed proposals on that day show up until the 1700s; their occurrences peaked in the early 1900s. The popular postcards of the day poked fun at the practice with images of harridan women who dared propose, and emasculated men who said yes (sometimes only under pain of death.)

In 1937, the author of the Li’l Abner comic strip took the idea of women proposing on leap day and turned it into a running gag. But instead of occurring on February 29th, he placed it on the November birthday of the comic’s resident spinster, Sadie Hawkins, from which we get the name of the dance.

Who’s done it?

A handful of famous women have proposed to their husbands, although sadly none that we can find on a leap day.

In 1839 Queen Victoria proposed to Albert, a situation necessitated by the fact that she held a much higher rank than him. Victoria recorded in her diary,

“At about half past 12 I sent for Albert; he came to the [room] where I was alone, and after a few minutes I said to him, that I thought he must be aware of why I wished [him] to come here, and that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished (to marry me); we embraced each other over and over again, and he was so kind, so affectionate…I told him I was quite unworthy of him and kissed his dear hand.”

Zsa Zsa Gabor has claimed that she proposed to all of her nine husbands. The first proposal was when she was only 15 years old, to her 35-year-old boyfriend, a Turkish official named Burhan Asaf Belge. It was Gabor’s parents who provided the ring, sporting a ten carat diamond, for their daughter.

More recently, celebrities such as Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Heather Mills, and the singer Pink have admitted to proposing to their husbands (or ex-husbands).

Should you do it?

There are no official traditions around how propose to your man, although many businesses, especially in the UK, offer special proposal packages and discounts for women getting down on one knee. So be creative and have fun with it, but be careful: According to one poll, only 56% of men currently in relationships would say yes if asked today. But another poll found that the tide is turning in the woman’s favor: More than half of women polled and 48% of men said that a woman proposing was a sign they were bold and modern, not “scary” or “desperate.”

Bizarre postcard images via Slate and Monmouth University.

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11 Brilliant Wedding Gifts That Won't Cost You Anything
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Most modern couples make it easy for you to pick out a wedding gift (thank you, wedding registries). But if you're going to disregard the preferred gift list, what you give has to be good. And you're in luck—because some of those gifts won't cost you a thing.

1. BONUS GIFT CARDS

Gift cards and cash are great gifts because they let couples enjoy a nice dinner out or pick up household needs that didn't make it onto the registry. But how do you get them without doling out greenbacks? Look for gift card deals and bonuses at places you already shop or dine (so long as it's a place the couple might also enjoy). In many cases, restaurants and stores will run promotions that give you free gift cards when you buy a pre-determined amount of gift cards. Stores such as Kohl's, Target, and Bed Bath & Beyond have all run similar promotions (and are also popular wedding registry destinations). If it's a store you already visit frequently, you can purchase gift cards to shop for everyday expenses, then wrap up the free bonus gift cards as wedding gifts.

2. FAMILY HEIRLOOMS

Weddings are the perfect time to pass on a family treasure. In most cases, these gifts don't cost a thing (except if it is in need of repair, restoration, or cleaning), but that doesn't make them cheap. In fact, marketing professor Utpal Dholakia suggests that heirlooms, like grandma's wedding ring, have more worth than a pricey crystal picture frame or kitchen appliance because of the emotional connection and significance that the item holds.

3. THE CLASSIC REGIFT

Single present wrapped in red on table.
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Regifting is never quite ideal, but in the right scenario, it’s not such a faux pas, especially if it’s an item the couple really needs or wants. But before you go digging through your closet or basement for the "perfect" wedding regift, you'll need to consider Emily Post's rules for appropriately passing on a present. The recycled gift shouldn't be personalized or handmade, should be brand new in original packaging, and something that the couple really would like. Oh, and don’t rewrap a gift that they gave you in the first place. That's just tacky.

4. WEDDING PREPARATION HELP

If you have useful wedding-prep skills, it might be worth exchanging some hard work in place of a wedding gift. In most cases, brides and grooms are stressed about the final cost of their big day (the national average came in around $35,000 last year) , but if your skills—such as floral design, dress alterations, or invitation design—can lower the cost, they'll likely be happier getting your help instead of a coffee maker. Of course, you'll have to work out the details in advance, but then again, that's one less gift you'll have to haul to the reception.

5. THE GIFT OF TRAVEL

Honeymoon registries have become a popular alternative to dishtowels and potholders. If you want to go for Guest of the Year, you can one-up the cash gift with airline miles. Instead of cashing in your unused miles or points for magazines, opt for gift flights or hotel stays instead. With some airlines, it’s cheaper to purchase tickets for the couple outright (avoiding mile transfer fees), so confer with them before the big day to make this gift come true. And don’t forget the important travel rule for the newly married: always use given names on tickets and any bookings that require matching ID, since any potential name-change paperwork won't be filed until after the happy couple gets home.

6. PET SITTING

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Wedding planning is hectic and expensive, so help your favorite couple stress (and spend) a little less when it comes to making all of their final arrangements for their pets. Well in advance of the big day, offer to pet-sit when they leave town for their honeymoon—they're sure to stress less if they know the daily dog walking, mealtimes, and kitty cuddles are being attended to by a friend. But before you jump in, make sure you're a good match with the couple's beloved pet; putting high-energy pets in a low-energy environment, for example, won't make for a compatible (or enjoyable) experience.

7. CASH-BACK GIFT BUYING

You can use this hack to purchase something the couple has their hearts set on, and it still won’t cost you a dime. If your bank account or credit card offers cash-back on purchases, plan in advance to save up the rewards from everyday purchases to put toward a wedding gift. While you're technically exchanging money for a gift here, it's the equivalent of using a free gift card to pick up that wedding present. Some credit card companies even offer the option to put cash-back rewards toward discounted gift cards, which also works for stores the couple frequents.

8. HONEYMOON HOUSESITTING

Being away from home for an extended period of time can make anyone nervous, so ease the couple’s worries by offering to housesit while they drink margaritas on a tropical beach. Depending on their digs, you may be in charge of everything from picking up the mail on a daily stop-in to actually spending the night while caring for pets and plants. While this gift is free for you, it’s a big budget saver for brides and grooms: on average, housesitting can cost between $25 and $50 per day.

9. PRO-BONO SERVICES

If you're an accountant, lawyer, or have some other kind of professional specialty or skill, consider giving free services as a wedding gift. You can offer to help the couple through the name change process, write their joint will or prenup, give them financial advice, or even just give them a couple of months worth of haircuts (but only if you're a professional stylist—we don't recommend this for just anyone with a pair of scissors and a trimmer!). You can create a gift certificate and deliver it with a card on the wedding day, and follow up afterward to see when they'd like to schedule an appointment (but note: if they decline your services because they already have a financial advisor, for example, then you need to graciously congratulate them again and send a gift).

10. SOMETHING GREEN

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Thinking of a gift for a green-thumbed couple? Consider sharing your favorite plant or a starter garden kit. If you're already a gardener, you can compile seeds from your existing stash, get seedlings growing, or transplant a portion of your favorite plant into a new pot. Just remember that this gift needs to be delivered after the wedding, avoiding the chance that the couple comes home to dead plants.

11. POST-HONEYMOON MEALS

Getting back into the flow of everyday life is a little strange after such a big event, so help the couple out by stocking their freezer with post-honeymoon meals. You can host a meal-making shower in lieu of a bridal shower, getting other friends and family (and their specialty recipes) in on the gift. Even better, consider coordinating with their honeymoon housesitter to drop off some early freezer meals that the couple will have ready for when they get home jetlagged. Chances are, they'll really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your gift—which is really the best kind of gift to give, regardless of cost.

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11 Wedding Superstitions From Around the World
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You’ve likely heard that before a bride can wed she requires something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue (representing her past, her future, and the hope of “borrowing” good fortune from a happily married woman and fidelity, respectively) or that the husband- and wife-to-be shouldn’t see each other pre-vows. (That one dates back to the time of arranged marriages when matchmakers feared the future spouses might run if they didn’t like their mate.)

But Americans aren’t the only ones with detailed wedding day rituals. Read on to discover the steps brides and grooms around the globe take to ensure they’ll last ’til death does them part.

1. IN GREECE, THE BRIDE AND GROOM GO NUTS WITH SNACKS.

The Mediterranean country is home to a sweet tradition. The happy couple hand out sugar-coated almonds, called koufeta, to their guests. As one Greek Orthodox bride explained to Manhattan Bride magazine, the white of the almond symbolizes purity, the egg shape is a sign of fertility, the hardness represents the endurance of marriage, and the sugar is meant to show the sweetness of married life. Together, they’re meant to wish the newly married duo "happiness, health, wealth, children, and a long life." And should a single girl take one of the blessed snacks and sleep with it under her pillow for three nights, tradition states she’ll somehow see her future husband!

2. IN SWEDEN, THE PARENTS OF THE BRIDE SHARE THE WEALTH.

Brides in the Nordic country add some heavy metal to their footwear. According to Stockholm website Your Living City, the father of the bride gives his daughter a silver coin to go in her left shoe, while Mom offers up a gold coin for her right. It’s meant to ensure she will never go without.

3. IN POLAND, BRIDES DON'T SKIMP ON THE SHOES.

Future wives in Poland must also pay close attention to their footwear. Tradition dictates that if they wear open-toed heels their future wealth and fortune would fly right through the opening. Fortunately, they have a shot to scoop up some extra cash. When the new Mr. and Mrs. exit the church, the guests shower them with coins they must scoop up to ensure a prosperous future.

4. IN SCOTLAND, FUTURE WIVES GET SAUCED.

Before a Scottish bride can be dressed in white, she must first be doused in slime. Pre-nuptials, the bride’s friends slather her—and sometimes her groom—in smelly foods like rotten eggs, curdled milk, and fish sauces. The tradition is said to prepare couples for the hardships of married life or to throw evil spirits off the trail of the upcoming big day.

5. IN FRANCE, WEDDING GUESTS PREPARE AN UNUSUAL FEAST FOR THE COUPLE.

French newlyweds flush away bad luck with a unique tradition called La Soupe: Guests gather the leftovers from the reception—or tasty treats like champagne and chocolate—and place them into a toilet or toilet-like bowl for the bride and groom to eat.

6. IN KENYA, THE FATHER OF THE BRIDE DOESN'T HOLD BACK.

The Maasai people in this African country douse newlyweds with good fortune. The father of the bride will spit on her head and chest as she leaves the village with her new husband. The thought is that by acting disrespectfully, rather than heaping them with praise, they avoid tempting fate and bringing bad luck to the new union.

7. IN NICARAGUA, BRIDES SKIP THE PEARLS.

In some ancient cultures, pearls are thought to symbolize wealth and love, but Nicaraguan brides won’t touch ‘em. In many Latin cultures, pearls mean “tears of the sea” and wearing them on your wedding day is a sign sadness is likely to show up in your marriage.

8. FUTURE WIVES IN MEXICO GET COLORFUL.

Mexican brides aren’t all dressed in white. Many will sew three colorful ribbons to their undergarments. A yellow strand symbolizes the blessing of food, blue is meant to bring financial luck, and red is believed to ensure a passionate relationship.

9. IN INDIA, BRIDES GET INKED.

As part of their pre-wedding celebrations, Indian brides have henna tattoos applied to their hands and feet in an hours-long ceremony. Often, the groom’s initials are included in the elaborate designs. If he’s able to locate them on the wedding night, the couple is thought to have good luck. And if he’s unsuccessful? He owes his new bride a present, which is somewhat lucky for her.

10. IN CHINA, SOME BRIDES GET TEARY, WHILE OTHERS CAREFULLY VET THEIR GUEST LISTS.

Betrothed couples in China have many key rituals to follow. In one province, brides must spend an hour a day crying in the month leading up to the nuptials day. In another, couples have to slaughter a chicken to discover the perfect wedding date. And some duos won’t attend another wedding, a funeral, or visit a woman who’s just given birth in the three months before their big day to avoid a clash of good fortune.

11. IN ITALY, COUPLES HAVE A SMASHING GOOD TIME.

To ensure a long marriage, some Italian couples will attempt to demolish a vase or glass during their wedding. Tradition states that however many pieces they manage to smash the glass into determines how many years they will be happily wed.

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