What is the History of February

By Terry John Calendar

As we all know, February is  the month in which Valentine’s Day is celebrated, when the postman‘s bag bulges with cards sent to absent lovers. This year February has an extra day, making 2016 a leap year, and 29th February the day on which women could traditionally propose to their sweethearts.

Even with the extra day, February is the shortest month of the year. It was named after the Latin word februum, meaning purification because it was a time of cleansing and purification. The old Roman calendar is said to have been invented by Romulus, the first king of Rome about 753 BCE, (Before Common Era). The year began in March, or Martius and consisted of 10 months. Six of these months had 30 days, and the other four contained 31 days. There was a period of 61 days in the winter which were not allocated to any month.

Each month was marked by three special days. The first of these fell at the start of the month, the second was on the fifth or seventh day and the third in the middle of the month. The first day of each month was known as the Calends and it signified the beginning of the new moon cycle. The second day was the Nones, the days of the half moon, and it was followed about eight days later by the Ides, which fell on the 15th day of March, May, July and October and the 13th day of the remaining months. The Ides are thought to have been the days of the full moon.

Each day of the month was referred to by how many days it fell before the Calends, Nones or Ides. The 12th April, for instance, was known as Two Ides, because it occurred a day before the Ides of April on 13th April.

The original Roman calendar therefore only had 304 days because of the 61 days which did not fall into any month. It therefore didn’t align with the seasons. In about 700 BCE, King Numa Pompilius decided to reform the calendar by adding two extra months, Ianuarius and Februarius, which increased the length of the year to 354 or 355 days. This  didn’t solve all the problems, because the new calendar still did not align properly with the seasons. An extra month was added in some years to make up for the lack of days in that year.

The creation of this occasional intercalary month was made by the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the College of Pontiffs in Rome. This caused further problems because the Roman calendar defined the terms of office of elected officials, meaning that the Pontifex Maximus could control the length of the year depending on the political agenda.

All this confusion was solved by Julius Caesar when he became head of the Roman state. He reformed the calendar by abolishing the intercalary months and a leap year was added to February every fourth year to balance things out.

February thus became the only month that can pass without a single full moon. It starts on the same day of the week as March and November in non-leap years. During leap years it begins on the same day of the week as August. Once every six years and twice every eleven years it will have only four full seven-day weeks and the first day of the month will fall on a Sunday and the last on a Saturday.

The Romans are said to have held a celebration known as Februa at the beginning of the month, in which candles were carried through the streets and women observed purification rituals. The pagan Celts held their great festival of Imbolc at this time, which marked the beginning of the lambing season. It was dedicated to Bride, the Celtic Goddess of Youth and Fertility, who was later Christianised by being renamed St Bridget.

During the medieval period, 2nd February was known as Candlemas Day, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin. It was believed that the Virgin Mary had presented the infant Jesus to God in the Temple at Jerusalem after observing the traditional 40 day period of purification observed by the mothers of newly born babies. The Gospel of St Luke tells us that a man named Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms and foretold that He would a light for the Gentiles. For this reason, the anniversary became known as Candlemas.

Candles were blessed on this day and distributed to the congregation, and in many churches candle-lit processions took place of women who had become mothers in the previous year. Similar festivals are still held in many parts of Europe and across the world.

Snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells because they bloom early in the year. It was once thought that they should never be brought into a house before Candlemas, but in later times they were considered to purify a home. An ancient legends describes how an angel helped the snowdrop to bloom one bitter winter and pointed them out to Eve as a symbol of hope after her expulsion from the Garden of Eden. She wept because her sin had brought such cold and death to the world. Many Christians came to see the snowdrop as a symbol of Christ, bringing hope and repentance to the world.

The amethyst is the birthstone associated with February. Centuries ago it was believed to protect its wearer from drunkenness. The name amethyst is derived from the Greek word amethystos, which means not “drunken”. The stone was sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine and overindulgence. Wine goblets were often carved from large blocks of amethyst, or were decorated with the stone.

The amethyst was also thought to cure insomnia and headaches and was often given to people who were in some distress of mind or in an agitated state, as it had a calming effect. The purple colour of the stone was also considered to be protective. Soldiers often wore purple, or carried pieces of amethyst into battle, as it was thought to help them keep a calm head during the fighting and would speed up their recovery from wounds.

Categories:History

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I should begin this blog about January by wishing you all a very happy and prosperous New Year - but I wonder how many people realise that by doing so, I am actually commemorating an ancient pagan Roman god?

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