On being ... more than just another day

By Ingrid Sapona

I try not to write about particular days -- like Ground Hog Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Dyngus Day (I grew up in Buffalo -- it’s a big day there, believe me), etc. -- because On being… is meant to reflect on thoughts, feeling, or behaviour, and such days simply don’t give me much pause. (Mother’s and Father’s Day are exceptions, for obvious reasons.)

But, there’s something about Leap Year Day that I’ve always been fascinated by so (to paraphrase an expression from Seinfeld) it seems column-worthy. I think one of the reasons it interests me so is because it’s one of the few days that I can use to track how my perceptions have changed over the years.

My earliest recollection of Leap Year Day goes back to elementary school. I was born in a Leap Year (basically a year that’s perfectly divisible by four, with some exceptions for turns of the century). At some point in grade school I found out one of my classmates was born on February 29th, which meant she only had a birthday every four years! I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so unfair. Fortunately, my elementary school teachers made up for the injustice by letting her (and the rest of us, of course) celebrate it every year on another day (probably the 28th, but I don’t remember) with cupcakes and the works.

After that, other than learning that when asked how many days there are in a year, to earn full credit you had to respond: “365 or 366, depending on whether it’s a Leap Year”, I didn’t really think much more about Leap Year until about seventh grade.

You see, it was in junior high that I first heard about Sadie Hawkins, which came up when the school had a Sadie Hawkins dance. When someone explained to me that such a dance is where girls could invite boys, my reaction was, “what’s the big deal? Of course girls can!” It wasn’t until many years later that I got a sense of how fraught with rejection the whole idea of asking someone out is.

At some point Leap Year Day seemed to take on the name “Sadie Hawkins Day”. When I first heard this, I thought it meant it was a day where women (for by this time I was no longer a girl) asked men out. Eventually I heard that, in fact, Sadie Hawkins Day isn’t just about asking a guy out – it’s supposed to be the day it’s ok for women to propose marriage.

I don’t mind admitting, I was quite shocked by this revelation. (Seems to me that proposing marriage is a far cry from asking someone out and the though of doing so takes fear of rejection to a whole new level!) Ever curious, I remember asking my oldest sister if she knew about Sadie Hawkins Day and she pointed me to the comic strip Li’l Abner. (That comic strip predates both of us, but she’s always been very well read.) Further research revealed that, in fact, Sadie Hawkins Day is really in November. Al Capp, creator of Li’l Abner, didn’t nail down a specific date because he didn’t want to limit his creative freedom, but Sadie Hawkins Day showed up in the strip at some point every November for about 40 years.

But more significantly -- and more disturbingly -- I learned of the “dramatic genesis” that gave rise to Sadie Hawkins Day: apparently Sadie was a thirty-something single woman (reputedly “the homeliest gal” in all the hills) and her father was worried she’d remain a spinster. So, to avoid this fate, he organized a race involving Sadie and all the bachelors of the town, with the prize of his daughter’s hand in matrimony going to the bachelor she caught. Apparently the other unwed women of Dogpatch liked the idea, so Sadie Hawkins Day became an annual event -- at least in Dogpatch.

The connection between women proposing marriage and Leap Years (though not necessarily on Leap Year Day) may go back centuries to Ireland or Scotland, but the evidence is murky. There’s clear evidence, however, that the tradition goes at back at least as far as 1908, as I’ve seen photos of greeting cards encouraging women to take advantage of Leap Year to catch a fellow. Hard for me to believe -- just 100 years later -- that the stigma of being single might propel women to look for an excuse to pop the question. (Courage, yes; an excuse, no.)

I think I like Leap Year Day because it reminds me (to paraphrase and old ad) -- that I’ve come a long way, baby: from my youthful concerns about a classmate being shortchanged in the birthday party department, to feeling that there have to be better reasons to propose to someone than simply being of a certain age and (still) unmarried.

So, I’m not sure how I’ll celebrate today -- but I sure will. Maybe I’ll whip up a batch of cupcakes in honour those born on the day. Maybe I’ll crank up the stereo and pretend I’m in junior high and dance myself silly. Maybe I’ll take a chance and risk rejection and ask a guy out. Maybe I’ll just celebrate that it’s 2008 and I don’t have to worry about being my age and still being single. Hell, maybe I’ll do all of the above!

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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