Tuesday, February 1, 2011

NASTY, BRUTISH, SHORT: And just how did February get to be that way, anyhow?

Voila: February.
    Blame it on Numa Pompilius, the man who also gave us the Vestal Virgins.
    Once upon a time—no doubt a happier, less slushy, not nearly so flu-ridden time—there was no February. Back then, the western world's calendar comprised just ten harmless months—March through December—plus sixty or so anonymous days stuck on after December. No January and, luckier still, no February. It was an eminently sensible plan that relieved us of the year's most neurotic month.
    Then along came Numa, who couldn't leave well enough alone. Numa made two contributions to history: institutionalized virginity and February. Neither can be said to have improved the lot of mankind.

Numa Pompilius gave us February and Vestal Virgins.

Vestal Virgins at work.
    Numa was the second king of Rome, taking power around 715 B.C.E.  As one of his first acts, he decided to legislate the whole Vestal Virgin scene. The Virgins were in charge of the fire in the temple of Vesta, the hearth goddess. Numa decreed that if a poor sweet Vestal Virgin failed to live up to the first part of her name by letting the public hearthfire go out, she got whipped; if she failed to live up to the second part of her name, she got her heart cut out, or something equally salubrious. In Washington, D.C., today there are politicians whose sense of public duty and private morality might have been learned at the knee of Numa.
    February was Numa's other great creation.
    An orderly fellow, Numa decided to turn those sixty or so orphaned days after December into Januarius and Februarius (from "februare," meaning "to purify," purification ceremonies marking the end of the Roman year). Januarius turned out okay, but Februarius was a mess from day one. In fact, it could be said that Numa was about as successful at February as his Vestals were at virginity.
    As the runt of the litter, February suffers from an identity crisis based on its ever-changing, if always short, size. Numa's February, for example was given as many as 29 days in some years, and as few as 23 in others—whatever was necessary to keep the annual calendar in sync with the sun. By Julius Caesar's time, the priests, who had control of the calendar, were manipulating February for their own purposes, extending it, for example, to lengthen the terms of their favorite politicians. (Do not let the House of Representatives hear about this.) So Caesar, a sharp politico in his own right, got a Greek mathematician named Sosigenes to invent a new, priest-proof calendar. This so-called Julian Calendar had 365 days, twelve months, and a still-bewildered February. Julius' February had 28 days, except for every four years, when, get this, it would have two February 24ths. The Romans called February 24th "the sixth of [or the sixth day before] the Kalends of March," the Kalends being the first of each month and the source, obviously, of our word "calendar." Years when February had two "sixths" were thus called "bissextile," an eye-catching term that calendar makers still use for what we call a "leap" year.

Pope Gregory XIII refined the leap year.

    Ah, the leap year! Ah, that extra day that since 45 B.C.E. has periodically popped out like a giant zit on the nose of a month that already had reasons to turn to a life of crime! Most people believe that the Julian scheme of things—365 days per year, except for 366 every four years—still obtains. Not so. Caesar's calendar assumed that each solar year was 365 days and 6 hours long. It is not. It is 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, and 45-plus seconds long. Among other things, the resultant temporal creep meant that by 1582 spring had made considerable headway toward beginning in, gasp, February! Pope Gregory XIII, then pontiff, saw the danger of that and took drastic steps: he canceled October 5-October 15, 1582 (you can do that when you get your orders from God and you're the 13th of Gregorys). Gregory then decreed that henceforth there would be a February 29th in every year divisible by 4 except for centennial years, which would have to be divisible by 400 to be leap years. That's right: Under the Gregorian Calendar, which is what we use still today, 1900 was not a leap year, and 2100 won't be, either. No wonder February, thus confused by a bissextile identity crisis, is a juvenile delinquent.
    About "leap" years: 
    1) The term is of uncertain origin. Some say the extra day in February originally was just lumped in with February 28th, so the last day was in a sense "leaped over." Others note that if Christmas, for example, is on a Sunday in one year, it will be on a Monday the next, except in leap years, when it will "leap" to Tuesday.
    2) Only two famous people have ever been born on February 29: composer Giacchino Antonio ("Barber of Seville") Rossini (1792) and Ann Lee (1736), the founder of the Shakers, a religious sect that preaches against marriage and sex.
    And finally, 3) The tradition of women proposing to men during leap year is the result of an agreement struck by St. Bridget with St. Patrick in fifth-century Ireland. Bridget's nuns, hardly virginal, wanted to propose to men at any time; Patrick counter-offered every seven years; they compromised on four. The Vestals would have loved Bridget, if not Ann Lee.

Ann Lee, born on February 29, 1736, has a face meant for February.

    All of which explains why February is the way it is. It is not the coldest month of the year, nor the windiest, nor the wettest, nor the snowiest. It is simply the meanest and the ugliest. January's cold has integrity; it is a clear, sincere, snow-and-ice cold. February is slush, sleet, and sneaky cold. By February, winter has worn out its welcome. Thomas Hobbes once described man's life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short." February is a lot like man's life.
    There are two months that don't deserve to live: August and February. August is the big, sweaty bully who employs brute force; February is the rotten shrimp of a kid who makes up in spite for what he lacks in size. Both deserve the chair, but you want to pull the switch on February yourself. February has an ice-chip on its shoulder and an icicle shiv in its boot. February spoils for a fight, and by the middle of February, you want to start fighting back. You want to insult February's mother. You want to kick February in the knee. You want to give a party and not invite February.
    And by February 28th, you want to call up Numa Pompilius and tell him: Look, of the two, as legacies go, we'd have preferred the virgins.

An icicle shiv: symbol of February.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine and elsewhere in 1986.)

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