If you live in the northern hemisphere, you most likely find yourself suffering through the bleak midwinter. Apparently, there was a polar vortex that broke apart and radiated into winter’s more southerly realms to wreak havoc around the globe. Where I live, in the midwestern U.S., late December to mid-January was survivable, but since the vortex’s arrival, time (and traffic) has slackened to a snail’s pace. Suddenly, before we could catch our breath from packing away all of the Christmas decor, we find ourselves stuck in the annual black hole of winter (more commonly referred to as February).
While I’m snowed in here at home, bored to tears, beyond sick and tired of working jigsaw puzzles, I got to thinking … who made up this stinkin’ month, anyway? Back in ancient Roman days, the period of time we now call February wasn’t even named, because the Romans, in their infinite wisdom, thought of the entire winter as one long, miserable, monthless period, unworthy of being segmented and assigned monthly monikers. When February finally earned a spot on the calendar, it was the last month of the year, and days could be removed or added willy-nilly.
Finally, when the Romans started having more dentist appointments, and organizing innumerable chariot pools for the kids’ gladiator games, the need for calendar reform and standardization was recognized. The Julian calendar was adopted, and February became the second month in the year. The name of the month comes from the word februum, which is a Latin word meaning, “Brrrrrrrrrrr!” If a Roman soldier tried to say “februum” while his stomach was growling and his lips were frozen together (both common occurrences in the bleak midwinter), it was very difficult to understand. If someone with warmer lips was trying to discern what was being said, they would ask, “feb roo, eh?” and hence, the name February was born.
(Okay…, you’re right. I made that last bit up, just for fun, except for the “februum” part. A modern-day English translation of februum would lead us to the word “purgation,” which is the act of purging, because February is actually named after the ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa. That explains a lot about the cruel sufferings of February, doesn’t it?!)
Other northern countries eventually came up with more fitting names for this month: for example, Macedoniacalls it some unpronounceable word meaning “wood cutting month” and the Polish refer to February simply as “Ice.” These names are so logical, and easier to spell. Too bad these countries didn’t rally more support for calendar reform based on their common sense. If someone put me in charge, I would find a name that means “the month to be homebound and bored and grumpy and sick.” I think “Bleah” would be a good fit. “January, Bleah, March” … yeah, that sounds perfect!
Whatever the name or the spelling, February will always be, for me, the darkest, seemingly longest month of the year. I personally think there should be a law that requires, or at least allows, hibernation in the northern hemisphere, maybe from, say, latitudes of 38˚N or higher. God surely did not intend for those of us in the North to be active during the month of February. We are supposed to be sleeping, eating, and longingly leafing through our new seed catalogs. Instead, we are getting up in the morning, like we do every other month, and going about our usual business, but we’re doing it with a lot less energy and a lot more grumbling than usual.
Over the centuries, people have tried to spruce up this annual northern tribulation. In the United States, we have the Super Bowl, St. Valentine’s Day, and Presidents’ Day … that’s it. That’s all we got. Unless our home team is actually playing, no one really cares all that much about the Super Bowl. It’s just an excuse for getting together with friends and eating football-shaped foods of all sorts. Pies, cakes, jello molds, cheese balls, meatloaf, you name it. Apparently, just about any food can be molded into the likeness of a football. And if it can’t, you just set it out on a football-themed serving tray, and seasonally disoriented party-goers will still find it acceptably enticing. When that’s over, we say, “Thank God,” and we start counting the days until baseball season starts.
Saint Valentine’s Day is the next event, near the middle of the month. No one knows quite how or when it was decided that we should go all gung-ho with this celebration, but we fall for it, buying cards and candy, or flowers and jewelry. The greeting-card companies and retailers have hyped this non-holiday to a fever pitch, and we do all this in the name of a saint who was actually removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969.
St. Valentine’s story was difficult to sort through and verify, there being (some scholars say) more than one Valentine. I think he actually took himself off of the calendar, because the day has become a practice in commercialism and “romance,” rather than a focus on sacrificial and courageous love. In defense of Valentine, and his known history, it is said that he refused to renounce his Christian faith and was executed on February 14, 269 A.D. (or, possibly 270, or 273, or 280). At any rate, he was martyred, and there are many proofs of his existence. Archeologists uncovered the remains of an ancient church in Rome dedicated to his name. There are also verified relics from St. Valentine housed at cathedrals in Rome, Ireland, France, Glasgow, and Madrid, to name a few.
I think we owe it to St. Valentine to honor him in a fitting way, as a martyr who loved God and lived his faith with all of his might. Instead of spending money needlessly, and eating too many chocolates, how about we try attending daily Mass on his feast day, and uniting our hearts to Christ’s?
Once we’ve made it past Valentine’s Day, the only bright spot left for us Americans is President’s Day. Whoop-di-doo and fiddle-dee-dee! Let’s take off work on Monday and go buy a washing machine (in honor of George WASHington). After that, we can recite the Gettysburg Address, sift through all of the President’s Day cards we received in the mail, and pack this holiday away until next year.
There’s nothing after that, people. Just day after endless day of bleakness and frigid arctic air, with an occasional tease of some warmer weather, just enough to flare up the sinus issues, and then it’s back to winter. We’re all getting tired of canned soup and winter squash. We long for sun and warmth and fresh vegetables, but it is not to be. If we were snuggled up in a warm, cozy bed, waking only to snack on some stale potato chips, drink some lukewarm tea, and run to the bathroom, it would be tolerable, but NO! I don’t know about you, but yours truly still has to plan meals, and go grocery shopping, and cook, and go to work, and feed the cats, and walk the dog, and gather up all the stuff I’ll need to file my annual income-tax return come April.
What bugs me the most about February 2019 is that the entire month of suffering will be wasted on Ordinary Time! I love it when Lent begins fairly early in February, because it’s a penitential period, a time of sacrifice and alms-giving and (historically speaking) purgation, so PERFECTLY suited to February.
Unfortunately, Ash Wednesday isn’t until March 6th this year, so February threatens to be an entire month of recklessly squandered murk and misery. Unless …, we do what our moms always told us, and “offer it up” because (luckily for us Catholics) we know that suffering is never wasted! And while you’re doing that, get started on that long-avoided project, or visit the elderly at a retirement home, or brave the cold for daily Mass more often, or maybe even read War and Peace, like you’ve always claimed you would!
Whatever distractions you choose for this February, go after them with gusto, and (if it makes you feel better), complain about the cold, and go to bed early every night, just to properly recognize the right spirit of the month.
St. Valentine, Pray for us!
Copyright 2019 Charlene Rack