Monday, February 1, 2016

February: One of the Coolest Months Ever

Dear George,
I sometimes think that the start of February is the gloomiest time of the year.  It feels like we’ve been putting up with the dark and cold forever, and the winter shows little sign of letting up.  If anything, we’re probably due for more snow and ice in February than we’ve had in December or January.  Like many places, February in Cincinnati is one of the coldest months of the year (average lows of 26 degrees) and one of the snowiest (5.3 inches).  It’s cloudy over 80% of the time, and it’s the second windiest month of the year (10.2 m.p.h.), making the wind chills more biting than the actual temperatures.  One discouraging consequence is that my daily FitBit points have dropped over 50% since October, tangible proof of lethargy and stagnation.

Of course, February can include good things.  When we were kids February meant hiking across the frozen Menominee River to Pig Island, walking on snowshoes to Brewery Park, racing barefoot in the driveway, building forts and snowmen in the front yard, sledding off the river bank,  and snow day vacations from school.  My father would tie our toboggan to the rear bumper of the Lincoln V-12 and tow us along Riverside Boulevard at hair-raising speeds.  

Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14 was an exciting holiday at Washington Grade School since the boys and girls could send semi-amorous Valentine cards to one another.   The children’s rule was to never send valentines to everybody in the class since that would defeat the purpose of assessing popularity by the number of valentine cards received.  On the other hand, we tried to make sure that nobody wound up with zero valentines.  I never got the most valentines among my classmates, but fortunately I never got the fewest either.  We celebrated Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 12) and Lincoln’s Birthday (Feb. 22) in school, learning about chopping down the cherry tree and the  Emancipation Proclamation.  We were also curious about Groundhog Day.  We didn’t have any groundhogs in Menominee, but I’d go outdoors each February 2 and determine whether groundhogs would have seen their shadows had they been there.  Though we didn’t have it in childhood, February has officially been Black History Month since it was designated so by President Gerald Ford in 1976.  

In recent years Super Bowls have been held on the first Sunday of February.  Though we aren’t sophisticated fans, Katja and I have watched every Super Bowl since the Green Bay Packers won No. I in 1967.  We were saddened by the Packers’ playoff departure this year.  As inveterate movie-goers, we’re faithful followers of the Academy Awards which occur toward the end of February.  Katja is rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and The Revenant this year, while I’m leaning toward Spotlight and Cate Blanchett.  

There are many puzzling facts about February.  One is that it’s not entirely clear how you say the name of this month.  Actually there is a choice.  People most frequently pronounce it feb-ew-err-ee, as if it were spelled “Feb-u-ary”.  That sounds similar to January.  The month’s actual spelling, however, suggests the pronunciation, feb-roo-err-ee.  I try to say it that way, but it’s not popular because having two “r”s close together is more difficulty to say. 

One February fact that I’ve never been able to assimilate is that February is the third month of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.  In Melbourne, Australia, for example, it’s the warmest month of the year with high temperatures averaging 79 and daily lows of 60.   I’ve always experienced February’s freezing temperatures as objective reality, and it’s hard to imagine this “truth” being a mere accident of place.  

February got its name from the Latin word “februum” which means “purification”.  Februus was the Roman god of purification, and he was also the Etruscan god of the Underworld.  The Februa purification ritual was held on February 15, the night of a full moon in the lunar Roman calendar.  Originally January and February didn’t even exist in the ancient Roman calendar since the Romans considered winter to be irrelevant to the harvest and a period which was consequently not divided into months.  January and February were added to the ten-month calendar as the final two months of the year by Numa Pompilius about 713 BC.  February was moved to the second month of the year about 450 BC.  

Unlike the rest of the months, February only has 28 days.  It’s shorter in part because the Roman emperor Augustus took one of its days and gave it away to August because that month was named after him.  Another puzzling thing is that every fourth year February has 29 days.  That’s because the seasons don’t proceed in exact 24-hour day cycles, and so, if the number of days was constant every year,  calendars would drift over time and soon get out of alignment with the seasons.  By adding an additional day every four years, that potential drift can be corrected.  That year is called “Leap Year” because the extra day involves “leaping over” one of the days in the week.  For example, the Fourth of July was on on Wednesday in 2001, on Thursday in 2002, on Friday in 2003, but then it “leapt” over Saturday and fell on Sunday in 2004.  Babies born on February 29 are called “leaplings”. 

A long-time tradition in Britain and Ireland holds that women can propose marriage during Leap Year.  Queen Margaret of Scotland is said to have instituted a law in 1288 calling for a fine if a man refused a marriage proposal during leap year.  The fine included giving a pair of leather gloves to the woman, a single rose, a one-pound note, and a kiss.  Nowadays the tradition is usually applied just to Leap Day, February 29.

Zillions of important events in U.S. and world history have occurred in February.  Here are ten that stand out to me: 

Feb. 4: George Washington was elected by the Electoral College (1789). 
Feb. 9: The Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show (1964).  
Feb. 11: Nelson Mandela was released from prison (1990). 
Feb. 12: President Bill Clinton was acquitted on impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice (1999).
Feb. 16: Fidel Castro was sworn in as Prime Minister of Cuba (1959).  
Feb. 22: In the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia, 4-2, in the Winter Olympics (1980).  
Feb. 23: U.S. Marines took the crest of Mount Suribachi from the Japanese in the Battle of Iwo Jima (1945).  
Feb. 24: National Public Ratio was founded (1970).  
Feb. 27: Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud met for the first time in Vienna (1907). 
Feb. 27: The first Mardi Gras was held in New Orleans (1827). 

In our family’s history February is important because of all the birthdays.  I’ll send cards to my brother-in-law David on February 2 and to my sister Vicki on February 24, think fondly of my mother Doris on February 25, and toast my brother Steve with a glass of Merlot on February 27.  Happy birthday to all the February birthdays that we know.    

Sources:, “February Birthday Fun Facts”;, “Cincinnati, Ohio”;, “Black History Month”;, “10 Facts About February”;, “February Facts”;, “Interesting February Facts”; www.popculturemadness, “February — History, Trivia & Fun Facts”;, “February”, “Leap year”

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