February, the shortest month of the calendar year, was added (along with January) to the old Roman calendar by King Numa Pompilius around 713 BC, ending the anomaly of treating winter as some sort of month-free interlude. When the order of the months was altered to make January the first month, February then became the second. It seems to have taken its name from Februa, a Roman festival of washing and purification held during it.
The Julian Calendar standardized the practice of Leap Year, originally inserting an extra day between February 23 and 24 (technically doubling February 24, the sixth day before the Kalends of March, which is why in Latin a Leap Year is called an annus bissextile). But, since 2018 is not a Leap Year anyway, something we will not have to face again until 2020. that is enough said about that topic!
Growing up, I loved February. In the then operative school calendar, it usually marked the beginning of the second term of the school year. And it included at least two school holidays – Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) and Washington’s Birthday (February 22). It also included Saint Valentine’s Day, a romantic occasion, the observance of which seems silly outside of a genuinely romantic context, but which nonetheless we invariably celebrated with "valentines" and parties at school.
Liturgically, one of February's most important dates is, of course, Candlemas on February 2 – the 40th Day of Christmas - which simultaneously looks back at Christmas and forward to Lent and Easter. Although we were certainly made aware of it in school, Candlemas had no noticeable impact on our lives. Unlike the practice in Catholic countries where the Christmas Crib routinely remains on display until February 2, common American practice has long been to dispose of Christmas much earlier. But, if Candlemas made little impact even in 1950s parochial school life, the following day was much more fun, for it was when we got out threats blessed, a beautiful sacramental which has thankfully survived the slings and arrows of post-modern fortune.
Then, sometimes in March but more often in February, comes Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which falls right in the middle of the month this year – on Valentine’s Day. Lent may or may not make much of an impact on most people today, but Ash Wednesday seems as popular as ever, maybe more so.
(Photo: February from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)