The Ancient Roots of February, the Tiniest Month

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 2, verso: February. Artist: Limbourg brothers (1385–1416).

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 2, verso: February. Artist: Limbourg brothers (1385–1416).

Why does February have only 28 days? Why does this one lonely month remain truncated while the other 11 months bask in the fullness of their 30 or 31 days? We have to go all the way back to antiquity to find the answer to this puzzling question.

The roots of our modern calendar can be traced back to the Romans who apparently found calendar-making to be a fairly confusing business. We have few records about the original Roman calendar but legend says that Romulus, the first king of Rome, devised a 10 month lunar calendar that began in March and ended with December, with 6 months having 30 days and 4 having 31. There was no need for designating the extra months of what is now January and February since winter itself was unimportant to note by the Romans because there was no harvest during this time.[1] According to Livy’s The Early History of Rome, Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (715-673 BCE), wanted to make a calendar that would sync with the actual lunar year and so he added the months of January and February to account for the extra days.[2] The length of each month was changed so that October retained 31 days, the remaining months from the previous calendar had 29 days, and January and February each had 28 days. However, the Romans believed even numbers were bad luck and so they added a day to January to give it 29. Why didn’t they also add an extra day to February? No one is really sure of the answer to that question but because February still had only 28 days, it was considered unlucky and was devoted to purification rights and honoring the dead.[3]

When Julius Caesar came to power he was displeased with the fact that the Roman calendar based on a lunar year did not account for the full solar year and so he commissioned a new calendar based on the sun like the Egyptians’ calendar.[4] The resulting calendar had 12 months and approximately 365 days. Days were added to several of the months so that 11 months had either 30 or 31 days, but February remained at 28. In order to account for the fact that the solar year is nearly a quarter day longer than the calendar year, it was decided that every four years February 24th would be counted twice.[5] This was called the Julian calendar and was introduced January 1st, 45 BCE.[6]

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Image courtesy of de:User:Rsuessbr.

Detail of the tomb of Pope Gregory XIII celebrating the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Image courtesy of de:User:Rsuessbr.

The Julian calendar remained dominant in Europe until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII realized that because of the slight discrepancy between the calendar year and the solar year, the calendar year was gaining nearly one full day per 128 years.[7] To correct the problem Pope Gregory made the following changes:

“Pope Gregory XIII omitted these extra days, ordaining in 1582 that, for that year, October 4 was to be followed by October 15. And, to prevent the discrepancy in the Julian calendar from reoccurring, three leap years were to be omitted every four centuries. A leap day would not be added in those years that ended in hundreds unless they were divisible by 400; thus, for the first time since 1600, there was a February 29 in the centurial year 2000.”[8]

The main goal of the Gregorian calendar reformation was to ensure that the date for the celebration of Easter would fall during the time of year in which the First Council of Nicaea had agreed upon in 325 BCE, but throughout the years following its introduction most countries decided it was the best calendar available and adopted it as their own. Throughout all of these reformations, February remained the only month to have 28 days.

450px-Month_-_Knuckles_(en).svgWith all of the month-length shifting that’s gone on since antiquity, it isn’t surprising that many people have a difficult time remembering which months have 30 days and which have 31. Perhaps that is the one bright spot for poor little February. It is special and everyone remembers its shorter length. If you ever get confused over how many days a month has, try the fun little knuckle trick to the right.

Or for the more musical among you, how about that lilting ditty from grammar school?

Thirty days hath September, April, June and November,

All the rest have 31,

Except February which has 28 and on Leap Year 29.

Finally, there’s another reason not to take this special month and its 28 days for granted.  February may be the month with the most numerically challenged history, but thanks to St. Valentine, it’s the one with the most heart.

One response to “The Ancient Roots of February, the Tiniest Month

  1. Pingback: 5 Ways to Celebrate an Ancient Valentine’s Day, Courtesy of AntiquityNOW | AntiquityNOW

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