As I announced yesterday over on my Blogger site, I'm shuttering that blog for a while to concentrate on a period of research for my next book. But I also want to revive this site in order to have a place to think out loud and explore some new ideas. For a quick jumpstart, here's an old historian's salute to the dreary month of February.
February Is the Ultimate "F" Word
I think it's time we did something about February! It's already the shortest month, thanks to Julius Caesar, who revised the calendar for us. His astronomers failed to reconcile a 365¼ -day solar cycle with a 29-and-a-1/2-day lunar one, so they ended up with one month shorter than the others. I'm grateful they made it February rather than wasting two of the lovely days of May. Personally, I would have been even happier if they had made it only 20 days long.
After all, what does February have going for it? The days are getting a bit longer, but when the sky is gray and ugly all day long, it's hard to get excited about the sun rising a minute earlier than the day before. The glitter and fun of the holidays is over. All we have left are the unpaid bills and the unexplainable extra five pounds on the scales. February seems to have its own "F" word – "fat." Magazines on every news counter are telling us to "Lose Ten Pounds by Tomorrow" and "Walk Off Your Belly Fat." Makes you want to get up in the morning, doesn't it?
And the weather -- We used to say that if it's going to snow in Memphis, it'll snow in February. If we had those flakes back in November, we'd all have been singing "Over the river and through the woods." If they came in December, we'd be crooning about "Frosty the Snowman" and "Sleighrides." But February snow? "I'm Dreaming of a White Groundhog" just doesn't cut it. But then neither does the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had this year. We’ve already had several 70-degree days, and each one throws our weathermen into a panic about “the threat of severe weather.” I’m tempted to junk all my calendars and assume that we will enjoy all four seasons on a daily rotation.
And speaking of groundhogs, have you thought about the weirdness of February holidays? We start the month by waiting for a glimpse of a bleary-eyed rodent, hoping he'll tell us that winter is over. Actually February 2 used to be celebrated in pagan Europe as a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. Christians made it into Candlemas Day, 40 days after the birth of Jesus and a time for the blessing of the year's supply of candles. Punxsutawney Phil, of course, is a purely American invention: he made his first official weather predication on February 2, 1887. Where did we get that idea? I haven't a clue.
Then there's Valentine's Day – a time for sweethearts everywhere, right? Well, maybe not. The real St. Valentine may have been a Christian priest in 269 A.D., in the reign of Claudius II. He was thrown into prison for his beliefs, and while he was there, he made friends with his jailor's daughter. When he was taken out to be executed, he left her a farewell note, signed, "Your Valentine." The day just happened to be February 14, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which Roman girls drew names out of a box to see who their lover would be in the coming year. So the two ideas--lovers and friendly farewell notes—gradually grew into our current celebration of hearts and flowers. The next time someone asks you to "Be My Valentine," however, you might want to remember what happened to the first Valentine.
Also in the middle of the month comes "President's Day." Uh-Uh! Not going to go there.
The last day of February this year is Mardi Gras, certainly an excuse for a party. In the medieval world, Mardi Gras was the last day of Carnivale, a period of silliness that began back on January 6 and extended up to the first day of Lent. It was a time when everyone ignored the ordinary rules of society and the prohibitions of religion for a short while. But Mardi Gras also carried a stern warning that the season for repentance was at hand. All meat, oil, and eggs had to be consumed before midnight, since Lent brought with it 40 days of fasting. In French Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday," and there's that "F" word again.
Maybe we just ought to give in and celebrate anything that comes along in February, in the fervent hope that it will make the month go faster.