The name of the second month on the calendar comes from Februarius, a Roman month derived from the Latin “februa,” meaning to cleanse. It was at this time of year that the ancient Romans observed rituals of purification and atonement. The festival of Februa was celebrated on February 15, at the ides, or middle of the month.

"February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March. ~~ Dr. J. R. Stockton

The Leap Day

If you have ever wondered why the months have differing numbers of days, thank the early Romans, who attempted to synchronize the months with the first crescent moon following a new moon. For this reason, some months had 29 days while others had more. Not just a leap day but an entire leap month, called Intercalarus, was required every other year to realign lunar and solar cycles. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar sought the help of an astronomer to reform the calendar; the resulting Julian calendar consisted of a 365-day year divided into 12 months; a leap day was added to February every four years. Further fine-tuning was carried out in 1582 by Pope Gregory XII, who wished to correct the calendar’s calculation of Easter. This revision came to be known as the Gregorian calendar and is still in use in the Western world today.

FImageebruary 29, the leap day which happens every four years, occurs in years evenly divisible by four (with the exception of century years not divisible by 400). Tradition stated that on this day a woman could propose marriage to a man, with the man being required to pay a penalty if he refused. Those who are born on a leap day must decide whether to observe their birthdays on February 28 or March 1 on off-years. In some states, those who are born on February 29 do not have their true birth date on their driver’s license since it is not a recognized choice for a renewal date.

"Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
February has twenty-eight alone,
All the rest have thirty-one;
Excepting leap year, that's the time
When February's days are twenty-nine."

Shortest Month

Why is February the shortest month? Some believe that Augustus Caesar, who named the month of August after himself, took a day away from February, leaving the second month with only 28 days during most years. In doing so he sought to ensure that his honorary month would have as many days as July, the month commemorating Julius Caesar. It is also possible that February had always been a short month. Both February and January, months having little agricultural activity, were later additions to the Romans' original ten-month agrarian-based calendar.

ImageOther Names

The Anglo-Saxons called February Solmonath, or “mud month.” February also went by the name “Kale-monath,” a reference to kale or cabbage, a vegetable whose frost resistance meant that it could be eaten even throughout the winter months. The English monk and scholar Bede, writing around the beginning of the 8th century, tells us that Solmonath was also called the “month of cakes,” for the pagan peoples who made offerings to their gods as they began plowing the earth and sowing seed.

"Why, what's the matter, 

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?"

~~ William Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing”


Through a process called dissimilation, in which like sounds tend to become unlike when they follow each other closely, the first “r” in February often disappears in pronunciation, so that it sounds like “Feb-u-ary.” Also, February follows January in the calendar, causing people to pronounce the names similarly. Whichever way you choose to say it, you are correct; according to the Random House dictionary both variations are widely used and accepted.

Holidays: Candlemas, Groundhog's Day and Valentine's Day

Just as the ancient Romans observed a festival of purification in February, so too did the Roman Catholic Church. Candlemas, celebrated on February 2, recognizes the presentation of the child Jesus into the Temple and the purification of the Virgin Mary. Candlemas occurs 40 days after Christmas, and takes its name from the medieval practice of priests who on this day blessed the candles used by the church throughout the year.Image

February is also famous for Groundhog’s Day, celebrated in the U.S. and Canada on the second day of the month. The holiday began as a Pennsylvania German custom, which stated that if a groundhog -- in older European traditions, a badger or bear -- emerged from his hole on February 2nd to find a cloudy day, he would leave his burrow and winter would soon end. If instead the sun caused him to see his shadow, he would supposedly be frightened and continue to hibernate for six more weeks of winter. The celebration bears some resemblance to an ancient pagan celebration called Imbolc -- in Ireland, St. Brigid’s Day -- observed on February 1. This Gaelic festival celebrated the beginning of spring, and was traditionally a time of weather prognostication.

ImageThe most well-known February holiday, Valentine’s Day, occurs on the 14th day of the month. In modern times an occasion to celebrate love and affection with flowers, candies and cards, the day was originally called Saint Valentine’s Day, named after one or more early martyrs of the Christian faith. The day first took on overtones of romance and became part of the tradition of courtly love during the Middle Ages, when Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate." Although a 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints removed the February 14 feast day of St. Valentine from the ecclesiastical calendar, its religious observance is still permitted.

February Symbols

Amethyst is the violet-colored variety of quartz, and the traditional gemstone for the month of February. Amethyst's hue may fall anywhere along the purple spectrum, from a pale pinkish-violet to a deep blue-violet. The ancient Greeks believed that the stone provided protection against intoxication. Sought after by kings for its royal coloring, amethyst was also a symbol of spirituality and piety.
Species of the Viola, also called violet, pansy and heartsease, are widely distributed around the globe. Although most commonly purple in color, violets can also be blue, white or yellow. Every violet flower has five oval petals, two that stand up, two at the side, and a striped one at the bottom. The bottom petal’s stripes serve as a guide for bees, which pollinate the flower. The violet has long been a symbol of humility and modesty. The flower’s habit of remaining tucked beneath the heart-shaped foliage may have led to the expression “shrinking violet” being used to mean a shy person. Although it spreads with alacrity, the violet remains a beloved wildflower, and is the state flower of no fewer than four states -- Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.
The alternate flower of February is the primrose, or Primula vulgaris. Most often pale yellow or golden, the primrose is native to Europe and was common in English cottage gardens. The name derives from “primus,” meaning “first,” since the primrose is one of the earliest blooms to appear in the spring. The Greeks associated the flower with melancholy, and Shakespeare famously coined the term “primrose path” to mean an easy or reckless route through life.

All About the Months by Maymie R. Krythe, Harper and Row, 1966

Graphic credits:
Groundhog photo by Aditi-the-Stargazer
1908 post card from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain
Kale art by orphanjones
Groundhog line art from Department of Defense, in the public domain
Flying cherub line art from “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” by Laurence Sterne, 1885, in the public domain, collected by Liam Quin on his Pictures From Old Books website
Amethyst photo by chronographia
Violets photo by Dreamer 20
Primrose photo by scoobygirl

(This article was originally published on February 17, 2011. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)