Superstitions, traditions, and folklore abound about Leap Year and what — in addition to that extra calendar day, Feb. 29, that we’ll enjoy this year — makes it special.
In Ireland, one the best-known traditions says that on Feb. 29, a woman can ask a man to marry her. The other 365 days of the year? It’s the man’s prerogative.
Centuries later, no one needs society’s permission to ask a partner of any gender to make a lifetime commitment, obviously. Still, McGillin’s — the 160-year-old ale house on Drury Street — will pay homage to its Irish roots this year with a proposal of its own:
On Feb. 29, the first five women to publicly pop the question to their beloved at McGillin’s will receive a $100 gift certificate to the pub — and also become part of its lore: So many couples consider the place integral to their relationships that the bar maintains a book of their love stories. The current ledger includes the happy tales of about 100 duos, with more undoubtedly to come.
“We’ve never had somebody come back and say, ‘We’re divorced now. Can we cross that out?'” said Chris Mullins Jr., who co-owns the bar with his parents and credits its laid-back vibe for sparking so many matches. “We get people from all over the region, and that blending of people and music and fun means you let your hair down. Beer helps, too.”
Like many other traditions, it’s impossible to say where and when the Leap Day proposal originated. Some trace it back to Ireland’s two patron saints — Brigid of Kildare and Patrick — who allegedly had a testy chat in the fifth century about the inequality of the sexes.
Brigid complained that it was unfair that women had to wait for wedding proposals, prompting Patrick to declare that women could do the asking on Leap Day. Others say a 13th-century Scottish queen designated Feb. 29 as the day women could take marriage matters into their own hands.
Other European countries had similar customs, as well as idiosyncratic rules about saying “no.” A man who refused a Leap Year proposal was expected to compensate the asker, be it with cash (Scotland), 12 pairs of gloves (Denmark), fabric for a skirt (Finland), or a silk gown (Ireland).
The United States, too, has had its own Leap Day practices in which men and women swap traditional roles. Until the mid-1980s, for example, an Illinois town replaced its sitting government with an all-female lineup on Leap Day. In 2010, Hollywood added to the lore with the movie Leap Year, starring Amy Adams, about a woman who journeys to Ireland to ask her long-term boyfriend to marry her on Feb. 29.
Jillian Appleby, 38, of Cinnaminson, said she doesn’t think she would have married Jim, her husband of more than a decade, if he hadn’t asked her first. Jim, 41, rented out McGillin’s upstairs room for his surprise proposal in 2008. Jillian thought they were there for a birthday party for a friend. She was surprised that the gift Jim carried was actually for her: an album of photos from their courtship. On the last page was a snapshot of the engagement ring he’d secretly brought with him that night.
After Jillian said yes, Mullins ran out with a bottle of champagne. Soon, the couple’s families and friends joined the party. It felt right to get engaged at McGillin’s, Jillian said, one of their favorite pubs.
“There’s just such a warm atmosphere,” she said. “Everyone’s talking and smiling and it’s like one big family.”
Regarding McGillin’s $100 offer this year, Mullins asks for a head’s up before any Leap Day proposals “so we can be champagne-ready.” But some McGillin’s engagements are spur of the moment, as Mary Jane Hurley Brant, 72, knows well.
In mid-December of 1968, she and her then-boyfriend of 18 months, Dick Brant, now 74, decided over lunch at McGillin’s to get married. Neither proposed to the other. It was more of a mutual agreement that they belonged together.
“He asked me what I wanted for Christmas. He said it nonchalantly, and I was like, ‘Huh? What do you think I want?’” remembered Hurley Brant, of Newtown Square. “I knew he was in love with me, and I was in love with him. It was not a hard decision” for the couple to make, she said, and no less special than it would’ve been had Dick gotten down on one knee.
Two children and three grandchildren later, the couple are still smitten with each other, which was evident to others during their return lunch at McGillin’s last month.
“There were two young guys at the table next to us,” recalled Hurley Brant, “and they said, ‘Excuse me, you seem so happy. What’s going on?’ We said, ‘Fifty years ago, we got engaged here.’ They were so excited.”
And then there’s Bob and Carolyn Hughes. He asked for her hand during lunch at McGillin’s in September 2011. He’d planned to pop the question that day at other locales — first, the Philadelphia Zoo, then an only-in-Philly location like Love Park — but he was continually thwarted by his hungry bride-to-be.
As they chowed down at McGillin’s, Carolyn talked about how her parents got engaged in 1975 in front of now-shuttered Strawbridge & Clothier. Bob then noticed that a sign from thesame department store was hanging on a nearby wall. He asked. She said “yes.”
The couple, who live in Fairmount with two children and one dog, still visit McGillin’s on a regular basis. The pub has been the site of so many Hughes gatherings that when McGillin’s Twitter account asked people to share their favorite McGillin’s memory, Bob quickly replied that it was of watching the Phillies win the 2008 World Series there. Carolyn quickly commented, “Not getting engaged to your wife?”
Even now, Carolyn noted, “He didn’t change his answer.”