Where does the name February come from, and why is it the shortest month?

In the old Roman calendar there were only 10 months. In winter nothing much happened so there were no months in winter. But in 713 BC the Roman emperor Numa decided to add two more months in the wintertime, January and February. He also decided that a year would have 355 days, a lunar (moon) year. February became the last month of winter and the last month of the year. Many years later the last month of the year was changed to December and February became the second month.

The word February comes from the Latin word ‘februum’ which means ‘pure’, because on the day which became February 15th the Romans had a special purification ceremony.

But why does February have only 28 days? This is a little more complicated. When Emperor Numa decided each year should have 355 days he also decided how many days each month should have. Roman people thought that even numbers (2, 4, 6, etc) were unlucky. So Numa made 7 months of 29 days and 4 months of 31 days, but one month needed to have an even number of days, and he chose February, the last month, and he gave February 28 days. Perhaps he thought it best to make the unlucky month the shortest month.

Many years later another Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, re-organized the calendar, giving the year 365 days, but the 10 extra days were given to other months and February remained with 28 days.

However every four years February is given an extra day, a leap day, because the length of a solar (sun) year is about 365.2 days. So if you were born on February 29th you don’t get old so quickly!


4 thoughts on “February

  1. All I knew was the title. Very interesting to read the background to the painting. I thought the toilet was just a room, though I wondered why one of the ladies had bare shoulders in such cold weather, in great contrast to the people outside in the snow.


  2. Did you know this “picture” is actually part of a series of paintings ordered by the Duke of Berry, France during the Middle Ages entitled “The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berri”. This particular series was based on the four seasons of the year.
    An interesting detail in that painting you might not have noticed show people in the toilets (bottom left corner). Such organized toilets (and hygiene) at the time were the utmost sign of opulence!
    The Duke of Berry was in fact one of the powerful lieges of the King of France who sided with him during the Hundred Years War.


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