February is again racing past, like a self-conscious actor looking to spit out his lines and leave the stage as quickly as possible. Every year I’m intrigued by this oddball of a month, similar to the way I’m drawn to Pluto, the misfit of the solar system, and the winter vest, which is neither coat nor undershirt, but rather a strange offspring of the two. I seem to have a penchant for weirdness. But if curiosity killed the cat, mine is less lethal: it just entices me to waste time.
We all repeat mistakes, routines we’re compelled to follow, much as the Earth is bound to move along its elliptical path around the sun. Some of us stay up too late, watching millionaires competing in championship games, or other millionaires trying to appear humble while accepting awards they’ve won for pretending to be someone else. In the morning, we can’t get out of bed because we didn’t get enough sleep, so we miss work and are docked part of our meager salaries. That night we console ourselves by watching a movie, or maybe another sporting event.
One of my unfortunate behavioral patterns involves dwelling on things that are either incomprehensible in general or beyond my specific ability to fathom. Actually, there’s a third category, and if I were being honest I’d admit that it represents the invisible, dark matter of my life: thoughts that are so pointless and trivial they aren’t worth mentioning. For example, who was the last person to undergo major surgery right before the invention of anesthesia? Do you think maybe penguins can fly and they just haven’t given it enough of a chance? Why don’t crop circles ever have mistakes? Does anyone really get hurt by slipping on a banana peel, and are these the same people who ski into trees?
But the burning question that flares up in my mind every mid-winter concerns February itself: Why was it clipped and impoverished, while so many of its peers were given a wealth of days?
I have to believe there’s a reasonable explanation waiting out there, and so I set off to find the answer, confident that once I do, I can return to matters more deserving of my attention. Hours later I’m holding my head, staring at the ceiling, and speaking in tongues. Spinning through my weary brain are terms and concepts like Gregorian and intercalary, proleptic and ecclesiastical, Julian reform and movable feast, along with a legion of Latin words that, when taken five or six at a time, cause me to lose my will to live. Mix in the fact that the moon’s orbit is not a whole number of days, the Earth’s orbit isn’t either, and the planet’s rotation has a wobble that adds another slight imprecision, and what you end up with is a problem that seems to expand in the face of all attempted solutions, something like how a drip of ketchup on your white pants keeps growing the more you try to get rid of it.
The exact length of the year and how best to divide it up wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that farmers needed to know when to plant seeds and when the rainy season would arrive, and the Romans had to pay their taxes on schedule and get their chariots inspected. Also, retail stores wanted to be certain when August began so they could start their Christmas sales. The result has been centuries of futzing and fiddling with the calendar – large chunks of days added and subtracted with great frequency, so that if you could somehow videotape the process, it would resemble a grown man riding a shopping cart down the side of a mountain.
Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome who allegedly ruled around 700 BC, added January and February and moved them to the front of the year. Before that, there were ten months, with most of them named for their numerical order. The total number of days then stood at 355, requiring Pompilius to devise a patch called Mercedinus, which added twenty-three days to the calendar – but only every other year. And where did he place this patch? He could have put it between two months. Instead, he inserted it into the last week of February, the way mad scientists and alien abductors implant objects inside living things, just to see what will happen.
Changes implemented by Julius Caesar in 45 BC inflated that year to 445 days. In 1582, Pope Gregory decreed that March 10th would be followed by March 21st, with a week and a half disappearing faster than German heretics. Again in 1752, the British Parliament removed eleven days from September, but the result was still a longer year than the one before, which for some reason had only 282 days.
It’s all fascinating, and believe me, there’s a lot more. But what I can never discover is the answer to that basic question: Why the disparity between February and all the others?
Even the ancient Egyptians knew that the year was about 365 and a quarter days. If you assign thirty days to seven of the months and thirty-one days to the other five, you’re pretty much there. Then you can fix the remaining discrepancy with the leap-year trick. Pharaohs, emperors, and popes couldn’t figure this out?
Until about fifteen hundred years ago, February had several different names, including the Old English Solmonath, which meant month of mud, and Kalemonath, or month of cabbage. So not only was it the briefest, but it was associated with wet dirt and a hideous vegetable. February, as we call it, comes from an Etruscan word that referred to a ritual of purging or purification. It also ensures that this will be the only month whose name is mispronounced.
Once every four years, we throw February an extra day, as if to make up for all the mistreatment and disrespect. Meanwhile, it continues to suffer its fate with quiet dignity. It offers no complaints of unfairness or demands for justice, even as it’s squeezed on both sides by bloated neighbors. It endures the greatest extremes of temperature, depending on the hemisphere. Smacked around throughout history, it’s called into service when needed and ignored again when its task is complete. How fitting that the planet Pluto – tiny and unassuming — was discovered in the shortest month.
And now, as the rest of the world gets ready for March to roar in with all its important holidays, I’ll likely spend these last few hours of February contemplating winter vests. It doesn’t seem right that the chest and shoulders are entitled to protection, while the poor little arms are left out in the cold.
Or maybe I really do need more sleep. When do we turn the clocks back?