February is a mess, however you look at it—or should I say ‘feb-yoo-ary,’ since most people can’t even pronounce it correctly. That’s right, it’s the only month whose root word is not found in Latin, but in the old Sabine language. Long history.
The first Roman calendar was weird. It is reputed to have been the creation of Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome. Yes, ‘legendary,’ meaning probably didn’t exist, and you know how Western Civilization likes to blame all of its worst things on people who never existed. This first calendar only had ten months, and ran from March to December. I guess nobody did anything important for the next sixty days, so they just didn’t count them. After Romulus no Latin would step up to be the next king, so they forced the position on a Sabine fellow named Numa Pompilius, who didn’t really want it either, though he did a pretty good job. He added the extra months to the calendar, naming January after the god Janus, and February for the Sabine spring preparation ritual called februa. Note here that it was always a given that the year started in March—in spring. Mars, the god whose name is evoked in the month, used to be as much a god of agriculture as a god of war. But we forget that now, since we don’t start the year where we’re supposed to.
It was Julius Caesar whose calendar changed the year in 44 BC, adding the leap year, and starting the year in January. Historians have said he changed the new year for this reason, that reason, and the other reason. In the end I think he did it because he was Caesar and he could. This pestiferous nuisance of a new year has been with us ever since, and it makes things so confusing! February, with its short number of days, was always meant to be the last month, the tag-end, the makeup month. Caesar’s new calendar added the extra leap year day at the end of February, but then didn’t allow it to remain at the end of the year where it was supposed to be. It’s now the second month. This just makes no sense. Since March is now the third month, the last three months of the year are clearly mis-numbered and nobody is worried about correcting that.
In February we are far enough from the winter solstice that there is noticeably more sunlight and it lasts longer in the day, but it’s still cold. We had Groundhog Day this week, on a day when temperatures reached into the 50s (F), but this morning we’re hovering in the low 20s. With all that sunlight people like to think spring is in the air, but if it is, that air is as frigid as any we’ve known all winter. The whole groundhog phenomenon, as well as a raft of other animal-related prognostications cited throughout history, is about the optimism of springtime’s imminent return; but that optimism will be dashed time and again by the coldest days and largest snowfalls of the winter.
February’s holidays are anomalies. Valentine’s Day is supposed to be all about love and romance, but I think we all know what it really is: the annual test of your ability to purchase the correct mementos verifying the scale and persistence of your affection. Or about feelings of suicide. There is a notable spike in calls to suicide hotlines on or around February 14. The severity of the ‘broken heart syndrome’ that besets so many people on this day is attested by the fact that it has its own technical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy (first diagnosed in Japan, thus the name.) Whether one is single or paired up, Valentine’s Day usually ends up being the least romantic, most stressful date on the calendar. The other February holiday, President’s Day, is no better, usually falling on the birthday of no president. When I was a kid we had two presidents’ birthdays in February, but we can’t do that anymore! What? Two holidays in one month? There’s work to be done! So we have a federal holiday on a randomly selected Monday, where the accomplishments of the two greatest leaders in American history—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—are honored with furniture sales. In fairness I should note that these are often really good sales, worthy of the name Presidents’ Day Blowout!—but still . . .
So the next time you hear someone say ‘feb-yoo-ary’ and the grammar Nazi in you wants to gently correct them, I would advise letting it go. The month is altogether a lost cause. At least it’s a short month, so we can thank somebody for that.