By Judy Garrison
Is there some reason, I wondered, why February is the only month for which I haven’t a clue to its origins? I asked a friend if she knew. Like me, she was aware how two-headed Janus, the Roman god of doors, had become January and March was named after Mars, the god of war, but drew a blank on the root of February. Another puzzle was why February has only 28 days and that leap year extra day, although I did have a fuzzy recall of calendar changes in ancient times. But all those years of elementary school hadn’t turned up the origin of February. Thinking others of you may also suffer from this unexplained gap in everyday knowledge, I—what else?—“googled” the month. One of the most helpful websites in providing information was www.theholidayspot.com.
I think we must start with a very brief history of our calendar (go to www.wikipedia.org if you want to drown in information!) The year used to begin in March, (think how the signs of the zodiac start with Aries.) Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, c. 700 B.C.E., added the two months Januarius and Februarus. The name of the latter apparently comes either from the old Roman god Februus or else from the Latin term februum, meaning purification. It is from this meaning that the Roman festival of purification, Februa, was derived. It was held around what would now be February 15th. He also moved the beginning of the year from Marius to Januarius. In 46 B.C.E. Julius Caesar reformed the Roman calendar (his version fittingly now referred to as the Julian calendar), changing the number of days in many months and removing Intercalaris. This was a month that was occasionally (!) inserted between February and March to realign the year with the seasons and had 27 days. Originally the Romans considered winter to be a monthless period. That attitude would have produced quite a calendar vacuum in upstate New York! Planning ahead must have been a sketchy proposition before Julius regularized the calendar, giving February 28 days, with an extra day every 4th year. [By 1582 the Julian calendar had drifted a full 10 days off course and Pope Gregory reformed it to our current Gregorian calendar. But it was not adopted uniformly across Europe until well into the 18th century. During the Middle Ages the study of the measure of time was at first viewed as prying too deeply into the affairs of God. Later it was thought of as a mechanical study unworthy of serious contemplation.] Astronomically speaking, February begins with the sun in the constellation of Capricornus and ends with the sun in the constellation of Aquarius. Astrologically speaking February begins with the sun in the sign of Aquarius and ends in the sign of Pisces.
Ash Wednesday, which marks the onset of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence prior to Easter, falls on February 21st this year. As Easter’s date changes, so does Ash Wednesday’s, so it may occur any Wednesday between February 4 and March 10. The custom of marking the forehead with ashes on this day is said to have originated during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604 C.E.). In the Old Testament, from which the symbolism for ashes is taken, ashes were worn as a token of humility and mortality and as a sign of sorrow and repentance for sin. Receiving ashes on the head as a reminder of mortality and a sign of sorrow for sin was a practice of the Anglo-Saxon Church in the 10th century. It was made universal throughout the western church at the Synod of Benevento in 1091. Learning of the purification practices in ancient times during Intercalaris, one wonders if the Lenten traditions, and the wearing of ashes in the sign of the cross in particular, were a Christian adaptation of these rites.
Though Roman Catholics are in no way obliged to receive the mark of the cross in ashes on their foreheads, it has long been a popular custom. As Catholic teenagers we would always stop at church for ashes before heading to school on Ash Wednesday. In certain neighborhoods I’m sure the tradition still goes on. Were we penitent? I frankly don’t remember feeling particularly contrite, while I do recall being careful not to rub off the ashes, being proud to bear them!
Note: A statistical study revealed that 93 % of Americans omit pronouncing the first “r” when saying the word “February” as it is difficult for Anglophones.
(If you believe this phony statistic, we have a bridge to sell you!)