The season of February
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
This is officially my twelfth and last ‘The season of…’ blog in the ‘To everything there is a season’ series [cue sad noise]. If you’re going to miss it then you’ll have to just start again with The season of March next month. And of course you can find all the season blog posts by clicking here or visiting thesilentwhy.com/blog and then click on ‘Seasons’.
So, here we are in February, this little month has patiently waited until the end of my series, and I’ll kick off by looking at what we know about it.
February is the second month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, it has 28 days in common (or normal) years and 29 days in leap years, with the 29th day being called the leap day. It is the first of five months not to have 31 days and the only month to have less than 30 days. February in the astronomical calendar falls as the middle of winter because winter ends at the end of March, but it’s the third and last month of the meteorological winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the last month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere (the equivalent of our August). And I know this well because our friend, Dave, in Australia has been telling us about temperatures of up to 42 degrees over there at the moment (107 Fahrenheit). We’ve literally been exchanging beach photos for snow photos. And in Afghanistan at the moment they’ve been facing temperatures of -28 degrees (-18 Fahrenheit). I find it fascinating that this one little planet can feel so small at times and yet be so large that it can face such extremes in weather like this all at the same time.
February’s full moon is called the Snow Moon, its birth flowers are the violet, the primrose and the Iris. Its birthstone is the amethyst which symbolises piety, humility, spiritual wisdom, and sincerity. And there’s a lot of purple going on there with the flowers and the gemstone.
The word February is derived from the Roman month Februarius which was named after the Latin term februum, which means "purification". January and February were the last two months to be added to the Roman calendar, since the Romans originally considered winter a monthless period. They were added by Numa Pompilius about 713 BC and February actually remained the last month of the calendar year until the time of the decemvirs (c. 450 BC), when it became the second month. It seems the month has been messed around with a lot over the years being truncated to 23 or 24 days at times, to fit with the seasons. Under the reforms that instituted the Julian calendar, they finally stopped mucking around with it and put in leap years to occur regularly every fourth year instead. Thereafter, it remained the second month of the calendar year, as we know it now.
So, I’m sure there’s loads of you out there asking - 'Why do we have leap years at all?' And they’ll also be loads of you saying - ‘Ah yes, I know this, I remember it being explained to me once, but I can’t quite recall it now.’ So for those that need a top up or have never known, here’s why we have leap years, and to get this answer I went to the top for a simple explanation - Nasa.
It takes approximately 365.25 days for Earth to orbit the Sun — a solar year. We usually round the days in a calendar year to 365. To make up for the missing partial day, we add one day to our calendar approximately every four years. That is a leap year. https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/leap-year/en/
So, a year is the amount of time it takes a planet to orbit its star once, and a day is the amount of time it takes a planet to finish one rotation on its axis (as I’m sure you knew already but probably forgot). It takes our little Earth approximately 365 days and 6 hours to orbit our star - the Sun. It also takes Earth around 24 hours to rotate on its axis. So, strictly speaking our year is not an exact number of days, and so most years we round the days in a year down to 365, but the leftover piece of a day doesn’t go anywhere, and so we add a day to the calendar every four years to make up for it. If we didn’t do this, it would slowly add up and over time push our seasons into the wrong months, so we’d basically end up like Australia with a hot Christmas and Australia would end up like England with a grey wet Christmas - sort of. And apparently all planets have leap years and Mars has more leap years than normal years for those little red guys to sort out their months and seasons.
However, it gets even more complicated because adding this extra day doesn’t exactly work out the difference needed, we add 24 hours but it’s actually 23.262222 hours, so by adding a leap day every four years we make the calendar longer by over 44 minutes, which over time would cause the seasons to drift again, so we correct this by doing something I bet you weren’t aware of. Did you know we skip a leap year every now and then? Well, we do. When the year is divisible by 100 but not by 400 we skip a leap year- so the last time it was skipped was the year 1900, and the next one will be the year 2100 (not something most of us will need to think about).
I always wanted to be born in February and specifically on February 29th, a birthday that comes and goes like magic, a birth date that’s just literally not in some years at all. I’m sure there are people that would detest this idea, especially you birthday-lovers, but I just adore the idea of being born on a magical date that comes and goes. On the year you were born it was here and you were linked to it forever, but then it vanishes again, taking your birthday with it, until it reappears again for you to celebrate. Surely, you appreciate your birthday more when it comes and goes like that.
However, there’s a downside to February for me too - it’s flippin’ odd spelling and pronunciation. And it’s pronounced weird because many people don’t sound out the first ‘r’ - Feb-ru-ary - some people do and it’s acceptable to do so, but many don’t. This comes partly because of how we pronounce 'January' makes sense to say “February” but also apparently because of a dissimilation effect, which is when having two 'r's close to each other causes one to change. Apparently, dissimilation is a phonological process in which similar sounds in a word become less similar - this was a new one to me. It’s always been the month I briefly pause over when writing it down because I often doubt that first ‘r’.
I’ve also recently learnt that Anglo-Saxons, before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, used a calendar based on the cycles of the moon and the sun, and back then February was known as Solmonað. Apparently the name comes from the cakes which they offered to their gods in that month, but the word ‘sol’ is not used in any Anglo-Saxon source to mean 'cake'; its most common meaning is, in fact, 'mud'. Meaning, either the kind of cake offered was called 'mud' due to its colour or texture, or, more plausibly (to those familiar with the good ol’ English climate) February was simply known as 'Mudmonth'.
Going to the opposite extreme completely, in Finnish the month is called Helmikuu, meaning 'month of the pearl', a beautiful name describing when the snow melts on tree branches and forms droplets which as these freeze again resemble pearls of ice.
So you can choose whether you prefer ‘month of the pearl’ or Mud Month.
What else do we associate with February? Sometimes has Pancake Day in it (it can fall in March too), or Shrove Tuesday to use the proper name, which is a Christian festival traditionally a feast day before the start of Lent (the 40 days of fasting leading up to Easter). Nowadays, like Christmas, those with or without a Christian faith, just use it as an excuse to eat a lot of stuff they’d never normally have and in this case eat pancakes for tea as a main meal. I’m a fan of the classic lemon and sugar pancake personally, or maybe a chocolate and banana and crushed Maltesers, but Chris also introduced me to the savoury pancake idea with chicken in, which is also very tasty.
Another, rather love/hate part of February is Valentines Day. Again it started as the Feast of Saint Valentine as a Christian feast day honouring early Christian martyrs but has become the annoying thing that takes up all the space in the card shops restricting the choice of birthday cards and the thing that single people, new couples, married couples, widowed people, lonely people, angry people, jaded people and cynical people all despise. Rather than a celebration of love it’s sort of turned into a ‘flaunt your love’ situation that makes anyone without it sad. Although I’m sure we’d all agree those very early, young days of waiting to see if you get a Valentines Card, and the thrill and fear of an anonymous one appearing, or the disappointment of not getting any at all, is sort of a rite of passage when growing up.
Then there’s something else that’s moved its way into February over here in England, something rather beautiful in fact - daffodils. Traditionally, these sort of started to appear above the soil in February, and March and April were known for hosts of daffodils sprouting around the country, but this year they’re up out of the ground in January and we’re definitely going to have them blooming in February - they’re already available to buy in supermarkets. I’m wondering if February nicked them off March because it wanted something to make people feel nice after January, and seizing its moment decided to bring them forward a bit. I actually have a special love for daffodils because when Chris and I first starting getting to know each other (long distance on email) it was around March in 2002 and there were daffodils blooming everywhere, which somehow we started to equate with each other when we saw them, meaning they became very special for us, exchanging photos of them regularly (on email of course, none of these smartphone things existed then).
All in all, I think if you asked people their thoughts on February, it would be seen as a bit of a ‘left out in the cold’ month (literally over here). Except for those with birthdays, anniversaries and meaningful dates in it of course. I mean think about it, it was shoved after January to fill a fruitless gap in the year with no month associated to it, it’s been constantly mucked around with so it never knows how many days it’s going to have, it’s always the smallest and shortest month, it was named mud-month for Pete’s Sake and it’s in winter.
If you look at the year as a whole you have:
March - known for Easter, start of spring (or winter in southern hemisphere but we’ll ignore that for now) and daffodils (until February nicked them)
April - known for Easter, weather gets better, daffodils, spring
May - known here for bank holidays, spring central, flowers, buds, hope, outdoor stuff
June, July, August - known for summer, nice weather, barbecues, weddings, holidays
September - known for start of school terms, fresh starts, nice weather but a bit cooler perhaps
October - known for beautiful autumn colours
November - bit dreary!
December - known for Christmas, lights, great food
January - known for new year, goals, reflection, middle of winter/summer
February? Who knows how many days, Valentine’s Day (urgh), Pancakes (Yay! If I remember to make them) and it’s short.
When I looked at the poems about February there were two central themes that came through; weather and birds.
The weather is largely like January’s poems - portraying cold and snow:
February Days The icy northern blast sweeps by, From wild wastes of the Arctic snow; Above us droops a wintry sky, A bleak white landscape lies below. The air is icy, keen and chill, All Nature lies in sleep profound, That seems like death—so cold, so still— Ellwood Roberts
February Though Winter still asserts his right to reign, He sways his sceptre now with gentler hand; Nay, sometimes softens to a zephyr bland The hurrying blast, which erst along the plain Drove the skin-piercing sleet and pelting rain Rebecca Hey
February Around, above the world of snow The light-heeled breezes breathe and blow; Now here, now there, they whirl the flakes, And whistle through the sun-dried brakes James Berry Bensel
In February I thought the world was cold in death; The flowers, the birds, all life was gone, For January's bitter breath Had slain the bloom and hushed the song. Jane [Goodwin] Austin
Afternoon in February The day is ending, The night is descending; The marsh is frozen, The river dead. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
But there’s also a lot of birds mentioned too:
The Thrush in February I know him, February's thrush, And loud at eve he valentines On sprays that paw the naked bush Where soon will sprout the thorns and bines. Now ere the foreign singer thrills Our vale his plain-song pipe he pours, A herald of his million bills; And heed him not, the loss is yours. George Meredith
February Rain O lonely day! No sounds are heard Save winds and floods that downward pour, And timid fluting of a bird, That pipes one low note o'er and o'er. Charles Turner Dazey
In February The little bird on the boughs Of the sombre snow-laden pine Thinks: "Where shall I build me my house, And how shall I make it fine? The little birds twitter and cheep To their loves on the leafless larch: But seven foot deep the snow-wreaths sleep, And the year hath not worn to March. John Addington Symonds
And as I sit here and write this now, I can indeed hear the birds singing constantly (to the point that I’m wondering how just how bad our windows are if I can hear them so clearly through shut double-glazing), anyway, there is a theme there.
When I looked at the poems I’ve been using all year for these blogs that mention all the months you get these descriptions:
The Garden Year February brings the rain, Thaws the frozen lake again. Sara Coleridge
A Little Calendar January's new, February's cold Annette Wynne
Not terribly descriptive there Annette.
Months Of The Year February the cold is here But celebrate Valentine day with those who are dear. Catherine Pulsifer
Each Month January falls the snow, February cold winds blow, In March peep out the early flowers. Unknown
Not any more March, February’s coming for those!
A Reason To Celebrate February brings love out front A cupid goes on the hunt. Catherine Pulsifer
And one we all probably know and learnt at school:
The Days of the Month Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; February has twenty-eight alone. All the rest have thirty-one, Excepting leap-year—that's the time When February's days are twenty-nine. Anonymous
And February dominates that poem out of all the months put together.
So, if February was a person what sort of fella are we looking at here?
Well, he’s short, probably purple, he’s keen on love and pancakes, he’s very flexible, he gives you time, he might be lonely, likes leaping, can be a bit cold, but he’s carrying hosts of budding daffodils and surrounded by birdsong.
Not the worst person to have round for tea.
All in all I’m marking February as a kookie month that’s been very under appreciated. And of course you know me by now, it’s another underdog and so I find myself starting to appreciate a lot about this short little purple fella. And I’m not the only one.
I'm Not Just February Though I am short of days and small, I'm quite a big month, after all! Annette Wynne
Leap Year Little month of February, You are small, but worthy—very! Annette Wynne
I think many of us arrive in February a bit jaded by either Christmas, New Year or January. We're fed up with the cold (in the northern hemisphere) and probably moaning about either that, Valentine’s Day, or winter in general, and wishing the month would hurry up and pass so we can be in reach of spring.
So poor February gets the worst of us when we enter it, but I think February has this little spark of magic that gently turns our thoughts so that by the time we leave this month, we’re in a much better place. We suddenly realise the month went quickly (because it’s short), we see nature waking up and spring ahead, we feel out of winter and hopeful for summer.
February is the gateway to spring, when we arrive it’s shut but if you sit with it a while you slowly start to see it open and we find ourselves guided through it by a short little round, purple man with flowers and birds. I imagine he pauses along the way to point out the melting ice and snow, to draw our attention to the new shoots pushing through the soil, to encourage us to stop and see the new leaf buds on the trees, to turn our face towards the sun and urge us to stand and bask in its increasing warmth, prompting us to remember that winter will always end, and spring will always come, reminding us to hope.
This is something the poets knew too because in the poems I read about snow and harsh weather, not all of them stayed in that place of cold and ice, like the January ones did, they often moved through the cold and winter into expressions of hope.
February That the mild spirit of the infant Spring Was brooding o'er the spots where hidden lie Such early flowers as are the first to fling On earth's green lap their wreaths of various dye— Flowers, round whose forms sweet hopes and sweeter memories cling. Rebecca Hey
February Within the forest's leafless shade I hear a spring-bird's hopeful lay O life to frozen death betrayed Thy death shall end in life to-day. Jane [Goodwin] Austin
The Brook in February But low, bend low a listening ear! Beneath the mask of moveless white A babbling whisper you shall hear— Of birds and blossoms, leaves and light. Sir Charles George Douglas Roberts
February Rain And yet this dark and dreary day Some brighter lesson still can bring, For it is herald of the May, A faint foretoken of the spring. Beneath the ceaseless-beating rain Earth's snowy shroud fast disappears, As sorrow pressing on the brain, Fades in a flood of happy tears. And thus in darkness oft is wrought, Through lonely days of tears and grief, The gradual change by which is brought To shadowed lives some sweet relief. Charles Turner Dazey
And it seems only fitting that this series draws to a close and ends with a month that seems to promise and point towards spring, and hope.
In my blog on The Season of March, where I started this series, I wrote this when talking about my Edgeworthia in the garden (which is getting ready to flower again now by the way):
‘Your story is sometimes it’s most powerful just before the spring appears in your situation. So lift your head now, don’t wait for the summer. Your story, your tears, your smiles, your hope, your fears, your face - is more beautiful to see emitting through your winter days than it is in your summer.’
Our garden at the moment is looking very sad, it’s been a harsh winter for the plants. There has been a lot of snow, frost, ice and rain. Many people have faced flooding, many gardeners will have lost dearly loved plants and trees. Some of the leaves that should be green are black, a lot of the tropical looking palm-type trees are looking dead. We are all waiting to see what will recover, what will re-bloom, which plants had strong roots to help them regrow and which have fallen foul of the harsh winter. Some of us will be feeling like that, winter has taken a toll and we’re battered, withered, broken or soggy at the core. But just like we don’t give up on the plants, we can’t give up on ourselves either, because there is always hope of new growth, better times, warmer weather. There will be surprises this spring for many gardeners as some plants make miraculous recoveries and bloom better than ever before, there will be ones we thought were dependable that will die, and such is life. We don’t know what’s ahead, this year you may be pleasantly surprised, you may be shouting with joy, you may be crying with grief, but either way I do believe there is always hope to be found if you make the choice to look for it, however hard that may feel to do.
Winter shapes us, strengthens us, tests us and exposes us at times, but without it there’s the chance we’d be very different, and not necessarily better, people. Transition months like February help us to assess, to take stock, to dust ourselves off and get ready for the new growth of spring that’s coming.
I’m going to finish with the full poem that I read a bit from earlier about the cold weather.
February Days The icy northern blast sweeps by, From wild wastes of the Arctic snow; Above us droops a wintry sky, A bleak white landscape lies below. But, 'neath the chilly Polar blast, A low, sweet undertone I hear: "The wintry storms will soon be past, And pleasant Spring-time days are near." In Winter's stern and icy grasp, Are river, pond, and rill, to-day; Like iron bonds his fetters' clasp, Like despot's rule his frosty sway. But only yesterday I heard— Though all the landscape was so drear— The sweet voice of a lonesome bird: "The Spring-time days will soon be here." The air is icy, keen and chill, All Nature lies in sleep profound, That seems like death—so cold, so still— But flowers are biding underground. The sun mounts up, from day to day, His beams each morn more full of cheer. And to our hearts they seem to say: "The Spring-time days will soon be here." The ice and snow will soon be gone, The Spring-time waits the sun's warm rays, Already we can trace the dawn Of brighter, warmer, sweeter days. Each morn we watch for signs of Spring, Each evening feel its coming near. All Nature's voices seem to sing: "The Spring-time days will soon be here." And though an Arctic wind sweeps by From wildest wastes of ice and snow, And though above us wintry sky, And desolate white fields below— Beneath the wind's wild organ-blast, A low, sweet undertone I hear: "The wintry storms will soon be past, The sunny Spring-time days are near." Ellwood Roberts