I don’t know about you, but I welcome February. January is sad and dark and loaded with slimy germs. I coughed and hacked my way through every depressing day while the cold medicine made me dizzyingly disoriented. Now that I have convalesced, today right before I opened my eyes, I said a quiet, grateful prayer for this new month.
February. A month of cinnamon red hearts and wild Mardi Gras celebrations and the solemn first days of Lent. We honor past presidents. Football gets its own special Sunday. We await what the groundhog will see. Every four years an extra day is tacked onto the month. But why? What is the history of the shortest month of the year? It involves Romans, superstitions, and some math, so bear with me here.
Our modern calendar dates back to the ancient Romans. Romulus, the first king of Rome, devised a ten month lunar calendar which began in March on the new moon before the spring equinox, and ended in December. But what about those winter months, you ask? Since it was mostly an agrarian society, the harvest was over and most Romans were just trying to stay alive during those cold days.
The second king Numa Pompilius decided the calendar needed some tweaking, so he added two months and synced it with the actual lunar year, which is approximately 354 days. The new months of January and February had 28 days each, but even numbers were considered bad luck to the Romans. Numa added one day to January, but no one really knows why he left February with 28. Some say it was because February was host to many festivals that honored and purified the dead, so why not just leave it unlucky. Sounds like a good story.
This 355 day calendar did not stay in sync with the seasons, so every couple of years an extra day was added to February, but it was placed after the 23rd instead of the 28th. Go figure. Politicians added or deleted these days according to their whims, so many Romans still didn’t know what day it was. Confusing.
In 45 BC, Julius Caesar revamped the calendar and aligned it with the sun instead of the moon. Ten days were added, with an extra day to February every four years. Now the calendar was closer to cycle of the sun and was 365.25 days.
That’s it. The calendar has been revised over the years to accommodate Christian holidays and seasons, but it still closely resembles the Roman model. February, that short month of purification, gives us pause. We send Valentines. We cuddle. We drunkenly stagger throughout raucous Mardi Gras parades. We spread ashes.
We anxiously await spring.
“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.” - William Cullen Bryant
(And because I am always an English teacher...)
Hogelback. Jonathan. “Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?” britannica.com. 2018.
McAfee, Melonyce. “28 Days?” slate.com. 27 Feb. 2007.
Reilly, Lucas. “Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?” mentalfloss.com 1 Feb. 2017.
“Why Does February Only Have 28 Days?” PBS Digital Studios. https://youtu.be/AgKaHTh-_Gs 23 Feb. 2015.