Single men beware!
It’s February 29th and ladies with beaus reluctant to commit to marriage
may well be interested in reviving an old British custom whereby they
were permitted to propose to their beloveds on Leap Year Day without society frowning on their forward behaviour, the hussies.
It may be the custom is related to, or descended from, a Scottish belief
mentioned in passing in Sir Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, wherein a
character reminds his son, post-event, that “the maiden who ventures to kiss
a sleeping man wins of him a pair of gloves”.
Charles Dickens pulled his readers’ legs by professing to be horrified by
Leap Year Day proposals. In Sketches of Young Couples he highlighted the
danger to gentlemen of England every February 29th, the day being then one
when it was “held and considered lawful for any lady to offer and submit
proposals of marriage to any gentleman”. No doubt with a twinkle in his eye,
he advanced a theory the situation had been worsened because, Victoria having
announced her intention of marrying Albert, single women in Britain were
secretly plotting to organise an unprecedented multitude of weddings to be
held on the same day as the royal nuptials, and he therefore made an urgent
appeal to gentlemen to convene a meeting to consider the best way of
averting the danger.
Supposing a lady’s offer of marriage was rejected? Well, in that case
the man was supposed to present the woman with a new pair of gloves,
presumably representing a symbolic consolation prize for his refusal to
accept her hand in marriage.
Gloves link this common expression and the now defunct practice concerning
funeral garlands for those who died young, unmarried, and as pure as when
they were born.
An account of the custom published in 1784 reveals some of these garlands
were quite elaborate. One is described as crown-shaped, covered with
artificial flowers and other decorations such as ribbons, lengths of
coloured paper, and painted or gilded shells. White paper cut-out gloves, on
which were written the name, age, and other personal details of the departed
person, were hung inside the round-topped crown.
A 1792 reference to this custom mentions that in the English Peak District it
was customary in many villages to hang a garland of white paper roses and a
pair of white gloves, no doubt representing purity, over the pew of such
departed parishioners. Other garlands were much less elaborate and
featured only an hour glass suspended from the garland.
In one Welsh location at least the funeral garland and gloves were taken down
after a year, but on each anniversary of the day of death of the parishioner
thus commemorated, a friend would decorate the grave with flowers and leave
a pair of white gloves on it, which were taken by the nearest relative visiting
the departed that day.
In his essay in Sketches of Young Couples Dickens mentions in passing that
refusal of a lady’s Leap Year Day proposal meant the gentleman had to
purchase her a silk or satin dress, an expensive fine to pay for his rejection.
However, the point at which the penalty for refusing a lady’s proposal was reduced from a dress of fine material to a pair of gloves seems to have remained well
shrouded, somewhat like the fingers of perennially persistent but ultimately unsuccessful spinsters.
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