Posted by: justawriter | February 19, 2010

Far Afield – Everyone picks on February

It’s hard not to feel sorry for February.
It didn’t start out to be the shortest month you know. Way back when, the Romans were conquering the world. They were among the world’s most bloodthirsty soldiers. They invented the word decimate, meaning “kill every 10th person.” How many languages need a word for that? Running the world turned out to be hard job, much harder than conquering it. In response to that challenge, the Romans created one of history’s greatest bureaucracies.
Bureaucracies thrive on paper and calendars. In old Rome, the second of those requirements was a real mess. It didn’t have leap years and was 10 days shorter than the solar year. The practice was to throw in an extra month every few years. But then the politicians got involved and they started sticking in extra months when their friends were running things and withholding them when they wanted an election to come sooner. By the time Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and took command of Rome, the calendars were so confused many people literally didn’t know what day it was.
Caesar used his dictatorial powers to impose a much more sensible calendar on people. Astronomers had long known the year was 365 days long plus about a quarter day. So Caesar said that all years would be 365 days long, with an extra day every four years to make up for the quarter. His calendar left February short changed compared to the rest of the months. It’s worth noting that the Romans named two of the longest months after Julius and his successor, Augustus, and nice warm months at that.
So the second month of the year has been kicked around for the last couple millennia or so. Maybe people thought the winter would be shorter if they carved a few days out of it and moved them to the summer months. If so, I don’t think it worked.
To me, February is an adolescent month. It’s too old for joy-filled communal winter celebrations of November and December. Think about it, when was the last time the neighbors called the cops on your Presidents Day party? It’s too young for the exuberant excesses of spring. Much as we would like to enjoy the longer days after the depths of December and January, snowbanks and wind chill conspire to continue our hibernation.
It is a month of waiting and planning. Seed catalogs arrive and are scoured like they were holy books. Sports fans check the paper to see if their favorite baseball team has put the pieces together to contend for a pennant while they wait for their favorite players to gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training. But for February, all the flowers are still just pictures. And as the great philosopher Charlie Brown once said, “Nothing is sadder than a pitcher’s mound covered with snow.”
To get us through the month, we’ve come up with a bunch of distractions to help us forget winter and focus on the coming spring. We start with prognosticating rodents that are pretty much useless in North Dakota because we know we will always have at least six more weeks of winter.
Then there is the commemoration we hold to support candy companies, florists and jewelers – all in the name of love.
Then we remember the presidents, not just the ones born in February who, on the whole, were pretty good. But we commemorate all them, including Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan, who have a hard time being remembered in history classes.
I think the ones who get celebrating in February correct are the Cajuns. If I were in charge of everything, I would have everyone celebrate Mardi Gras, New Orleans style. Mardi Gras is a celebration of making it halfway through a long hard winter. It is celebrated with parades that are too gaudy, food that is too spicy, music that is too loud and parties that go too long into the night. It’s a day when too much is just enough. It is a breaking of the shell we build around ourselves in winter, a splitting of the cocoon that releases the beautiful butterfly inside.
It’s also a profoundly religious day. For Christians, it marks the beginning of the holiest time of the year. Mardi Gras came to the Catholic Cajuns (and others, such as the Brazilians who call it Carnival) from their European forebears as a celebration to polish off the last of the meat and other foods that were prohibited during Lent. Since it was a feast the day before Ash Wednesday, it was called Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. It was a day of feasting before the 40 days of fasting that preceded Easter and the first glorious days of spring.
I hope everyone had a vigorous Mardi Gras this week and that you were able to break out of their winter shell a bit. We are on the downhill side of winter and soon the first signs of spring will be appearing, like the sound of a baseball hitting a catcher’s mitt.


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