The story of February goes back to the year 740 BC. Legend tells of Romulus, the first king of Rome, who like any good king had to provide for all the things that a city needed. He had to designate money — he used salt and some natural silver and copper — and he had to say which days were for work and which were for holidays. Now dividing the days had been going on since the time of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. But there was a problem. Some of the early calendars were based on the sun and some on the moon.
Each calendar sort of made sense in its own way. The Egyptians used the sun because they found that the Nile would flood each year when a certain star was at a certain distance from the sun. The Babylonians were sailors and used the moon because of the tides. This was the calendar that Romulus inherited. The trouble was that a lunar year is only about 354 days long, and in short order the calendar was seriously out of whack. It had only ten months and continually needed more days. The poor king dickered around, adding days every so often, but he just couldn’t make it work out.
It remained for his successor to add two months and give us the beginnings of the calendar that we know today. The Roman year now had: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December, Januarius and Februarius. These months were all either thirty or thirty-one days long. The last month of the year was our February, and at that time it had a full thirty days.
Februarius in Latin means ‘to purify’ and the Romans would prepare for the coming year by fasting and prayer. This new calendar was head and shoulders above the old lunar calendar. It provided for a year of 365 days. However, any high-school student can tell you that a real year is about 365 AND ONE-QUARTER days long. So some seven hundred years later, in the reign of another king of Rome, a guy named Julius Caesar, the calendar was seriously wrong again.
That one-quarter of a day difference had moved the seasons over by several months, and Julius, who was no slouch, was determined to fix it. He huddled with his astrologers and came up with a program to set things right. First, he decreed that the year, which we know as 46 B.C., would have 445 days. (There was a lot of grumbling over that.) Second, he moved Januarius and Februarius to the top, making January First the start of the year. Then, because he had an ego befitting an emperor, he renamed Quintilis after himself — Julius, our July. Next he took a day out of Februarius and added it to Julius giving ‘his month’ the full thirty-one days.
Our February now had only twenty-nine days. Finally, he added one day every fourth year back to Februarius to make up for that one-quarter day difference that started the trouble in the first place.
O.K. so far? Not so fast. Julius, in due course, passed from the scene and along came another emperor, Augustus. He felt that he was every bit as important as Julius, promptly changed the name of Sextilis to Augustus, (August), and, — you guess it — took another day from poor February, now with only twenty-eight days, to make his month as long as Julius’.
At this point the calendar was almost right. Almost, because there still remained a couple of minutes difference each year to be accounted for. In 1582, very close to the spot where Romulus, Julius Caesar and Augustus reigned, a wise old pope named Gregory XIII put on the finishing touches. He decreed the cutting out of three days every 400 years to make up for those last few minutes. Of course, by now you know which month would have to cough up those days! It was our poor little February, who lost three of its extra leap-year days for any century year that couldn’t be divided by 400. This last part is a little complicated, but it worked.
And so that is the story of how February got to be the littlest month. Maybe giving up a day or two along the way was really its destiny. Because after all that history, February still means ‘to purify’.
Via the Annals of History