Five February findings

1. February is named for februa – associated with ancient rites of purification.

The Roman poet Ovid, born in 43 BCE, wrote in his Fastia half-finished work on the calendar: ‘The fathers of Rome called purification februa.

In Ovid’s own time it was still used for certain artefacts:

Purifying branches

woollen cloths called februa in the ancient tongue
When houses are cleansed, the roasted grain and salt
… are called by the same name
The same name too is given to the branch, cut from a pure/Tree …

a branch of pine,
In short anything used to purify our bodies
Had that title in the days of our hairy ancestors.

Ovid also seems to speculate over an association of februa with this month’s festival of Lupercalia on February 15, in which the earth was cleansed with ‘strips of purifying hide‘ or perhaps ‘because the time is pure, having placated the dead.’

Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil
Could be erased by rites of purification.  

Is it fanciful to see connections here to our own customs of spring-cleaning and to the  Christian practice of confession on Shrove Tuesday, before the extended period of purification through abstinence, which we call Lent?

Certainly, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the feast of Lupercalia was appropriated in 494 CE as a Christian Festival of Purification.

What links do you make to similar religious or secular customs? Is this by coincidence? Or does the end of winter, the beginning of spring, suggest a time for clearing out what is dead to make way for the renewal of life?

2. There was a time when February was unnamed and had no existence.

As Ovid says, ‘The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa, were unknown’ 

As I mentioned in my post on January, the early Romans, in a time that Ovid thought of as ancient, began counting months in March and stopped in December. It seems that in between there was a quiet time without name.

Magnolia in February
Magnolia in February

Perhaps everyone used to hibernate? Many people I speak to at this time of year seem to long for the winter months to be over, but I enjoy the illusion that time has come to a stop, and love the beauty of bare branches, the colours of the wood, so intricate and natural against the sky.

February primroses
February Primroses

And yet nothing really stops. From the beginning of the month already, spears of daffodils are piercing the earth; by mid-February yellow trumpets blare from southern roadsides. Spring is moving northwards at her own pace. Snowdrops are almost old news.

The first primroses are out.

3. February, on its introduction to the Roman calendar, was the last month of the year.

The Encyclopedia Britannica is a little confusing here: in one post on the Roman Republican Calendar stating that Numa Pompilius (the second king of Rome, who lived more than 600 years before Ovid’s time), is credited with adding January to the beginning of the year and February at the end. This makes sense if we think of March as the original first month. And yet this article also states that in 452 BC, February was moved to its current position between January and March, suggesting that when the two months were introduced the order would have been December, February, January, March.

This seems rather silly. Is it possible? Or is there some confusion about what is meant by the last and the first? I had gathered that March was initially still retained as the first month and that January and February were added between December and March, with January taking over as the first month of the year ‘no later than 153 BCE’ (according to this EB entry). It just goes to show how difficult it is to get at the truth sometimes.

That calendars are conventions we make to help us count time, and that, over the centuries there have been plenty of periods of confusion, is apparent from the fact I noted in January, that the calendar in England was out of sync with the rest of Europe for a few centuries, that the honour of being the first month of the year shifted between January and March in the English Christian calendar, only settling for good into the familiar order as late as 1752, but leaving us with various anomalies, such as the dating of the tax year in the UK. Of which, more in March and April.

Apple tree in February
Apple tree in February

4. February has 28 days (except in a leap year) because of a superstition.  

By the time February was introduced, the Romans had developed a superstitious dread of even numbers. All other months at that time were given odd numbers, but, since 12 odd numbers would add up to an even total, it was allowed that February, which Ovid says was ‘sacred to the last rites of the dead’ might properly be the one to carry what otherwise would have seemed an unlucky number. I assume that a leap year, giving February 29 days, must have felt particularly lucky.

5. How do you say the word February?  

The Oxford English Dictionary finds it necessary to remind readers that February is spelled with a ‘r’ after the ‘Feb’ part. Apparently, though ‘precise speakers insist upon it’ it is ‘not easy’ to pronounce the ‘r’, so that ‘most people’ replace the ‘r’ with a ‘y’ and say Feb-yoo rather than Feb-roo. Also that ‘this is now becoming the accepted standard’.

At first I felt faint. Then I thought back to lessons at primary school. Then I realised I probably say Feb yoo airy half the time anyway.  I do think that keeping the februa, as the root of the word, in mind, helps a bit to remember the ‘r’.

I wonder when the spelling will change? Around the time that ‘must of’ finally replaces ‘must’ve’ perhaps? That being an example of a version that is more difficult to say replacing the one that is easier and logically a result of the contraction ‘must have’.

It’s all progress except when we’re going backward sideways and somewhere out of sight. Which reminds me that Ovid also mentions February is the month of the Feast of Fools …

And we haven’t even started on Carnival, Pancake Day or said anything about St Valentine!

How do you feel about February?

Another Allington Hill Volcano - February
Another Allington Hill Volcano – February

10 thoughts on “Five February findings

  1. Fascinating stuff! Personally I never liked the written look of February, sort of messy 😉

    On another note, I’ve just purchased the paperback of The Chicken Soup Murder from Booktopia, Australia’s online bookshop. As yet there are no reviews and no author information under your name but it’s also available in ebook format.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, please do call me Gretchen. In an aside, I am working on a Q&A with a poet and only just found out she writes under a nom de plume.

    With regard to Booktopia, you did the right thing. I went a step further to order your book and it goes into a different screen with cost, etc, and that is where it is blank – crisis averted!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A fascinating post, Maria. Predictably, I’ve been mouthing February to myself for several minutes now. Am I pronouncing the ‘r’ because I’m thinking about it? What a question to place in the mind of someone with a tendency towards obsessions…

    What do I think of this month? Cold, wet, windy, even on other years than this! But, the days are getting longer, and I like looking for buds, bursting.


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