T.S. Eliot might have felt that April was the cruelest month, but sometimes I wonder, did he ever experience, really experience, a New England February? Sure, he went to Harvard, but maybe winters in the early part of the 20th Century were milder? February may be only 28 days long, but in many years, it seems to go on well beyond 31. And this year, we are blessed(?) with an additional day. It’s Leap Year.
Originally, there wasn’t any February, nor a January, in the calendar. The Romans had a ten-month calendar, with an undifferentiated “winter” at the end of the year. Then, in the Eighth Century BC, Roman King Numa Pompilius added these two months to what had been a ten-month long calendar. And, according to blog.dictionary.com, both January and February were originally 28 days; some time later, January grew, but February remained at 28. February is the most oddly named month; it’s named after a Roman festival called Februa, when citizens were ritually washed. Before we in the English-speaking world adopted February, this month was called Solmonath, meaning “mud month.”
Now, as for Leap Year: The problem we have, with our standard 365-day year, is that what we call a “day” isn’t quite 24 hours long. According to Forbes.com, it’s about four minutes short, and it therefore takes us 365.24 “days” to orbit the sun. That’s why we add a day every four years. But (yes, there is always another “but”) that’s just a bit too many days, because that one day every four years adds an extra 11 minutes to our year. So the rule is: Leap year occurs every year evenly divisible by four, except for any year divisible by 100, except for any year divisible by 400. Got it?
What February does give us is a day dedicated to love, Saint Valentine’s Day. Saint Valentine (the original one; there are two others in the Roman Catholic Church as well) lived in Rome in the late third century AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel (you have to figure, if you’re brought before an emperor known as Claudius the Cruel, things aren’t going to end well). Claudius was having a problem recruiting men for the army; too many were becoming attached to their wives and children. Claudius’ answer was to ban marriage, which seems to me to be akin to confronting the problem of alcoholism by banning beer steins; we’ll find some other means to satisfy our thirst. Anyway, Valentine, a priest in Rome, defied the emperor and performed weddings. Claudius took offense, had Valentine imprisoned, and beheaded. The story goes that, prior to going to his execution, Valentine left a note for his jailer’s daughter that read, “From your Valentine,” thereby lending his name to the love notes that are exchanged on February 14. The tradition of sending Valentine cards goes back well into the Middle Ages; Chaucer, in his Parliament of Foules, wrote: “For this was seynt on Saint Valentyne’s Day/When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Unfortunately, the Catholic Church was somewhat less than impressed with Saint Valentine’s pedigree and authenticity, and dropped him from the ranks of official saints, in 1969. It hasn’t stopped the Valentine’s Day industry, though.