Teaching Moment: Why is February So Short?
- Jay Ryan
- 2003 11 Feb
Many wonder why February is the shortest month of the year. Our modern calendar is based on the old pagan Roman calendar. And the Roman calendar can be a confusing subject.
The Roman calendar was first established by the legendary Romulus, who founded the city of Rome in 753 B.C. For some reason, Romulus established a calendar that originally had 10 months and began in March.
Students of Latin will appreciate that "Septembris" would be the seventh month, after the Latin word "septem," meaning "seven." Similarly, October, November and December would have been the eighth, ninth and tenth months, after "octo" (8), "novem" (9), and "decem" (10). The months before September were named "Quintilis," the fifth month and "Sextilis," the sixth month.
The successor of Romulus was Numa, king of Rome. Numa changed the calendar of Romulus into a proper lunar calendar, based on counting cycles of the Moon's phases. Numa added the months January and February to the Roman calendar.
But for some reason he placed these months at the beginning of the year, thereby messing up the numbering of the months for all posterity.
Numa set aside the month of February a religious festival of purification. February was the only month established to have 28 days. The remaining months of the year had either 29 days or 31 days, so that the cycle of the Moon's phases would coincide with the months.
When Julius Caesar became dictator of Rome, he instituted the Julian Calendar, which was a true solar calendar based on the annual cycle of the Sun through the seasons of the year. In order to bring Numa's lunar calendar into agreement with the Sun's annual cycle, 10 extra days were distributed among the months. However, no extra days were added to February so as to not affect the pagan rituals performed during this month. So February remained a month of 28 days.
Caesar's new calendar required an extra intercalated day every four years; he decreed that this day fall within February. And so we still to this day celebrate the "leap year" at the end of February.
Ironically, even though Numa's pagan festival has not been celebrated for centuries, our modern calendar still preserves this cultural remnant in the short month of February.
Caesar was born in the month of Quintilis. When Mark Antony was consul of Rome, he honored Caesar by renaming the fifth month of the Roman calendar, changing its name from "Quintilis" to "Julius." And Caesar is still remembered to this day in his month of "July."
Julius Caesar was succeeded by his nephew Octavian, who we know better under the name of Caesar Augustus. We read in Luke 2:1 that this same Roman Emperor decreed "that all the world should be taxed," thereby bringing Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. In honor of his own exploits, the Roman Senate decreed that the sixth month "Sextilis" be renamed "Augustus." And this month has been called "August" ever since.
In the play "Julius Caesar" by William Shakespeare, Mark Antony eulogizes Caesar in this famous passage:
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
"I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
"The evil that men do lives after them,
"The good is oft interred with their bones,
"So let it be with Caesar...."
But given the success of the Julian calendar, certainly this good done by Caesar has lived after him. The Julian calendar was a great step forward for astronomical timekeeping. It served well for over 1500 years before being adjusted by the Gregorian calendar. And with the Gregorian adjustment, it remains to this day the basis of our modern civil calendar, and also the church calendar that Christians use, such as for celebrating Easter.
The above is an excerpt from The Classical Astronomy Update by Jay Ryan, a free email newsletter for helping Christian homeschool families learn more about what's up in the starry sky. If you would like to
regularly receive the full Update, please drop Jay an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Ryan is a former Contributing Editor to Sky & Telescope magazine. Now he applies all his efforts to the glory of God, especially for the benefit of Christian homeschoolers and other Christian kids.