For a short month, February is jam-packed. On the church calendar, of course, the big date is Ash Wednesday (the 21st this year), marking the beginning of Lent.
In secular terms, we’ve got Groundhog Day, the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, Valentine’s Day….and baseball fans like myself are counting down the days until major league pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training mid-month!
Lots of activity for just 28 days. But why is it that February was shorted when the calendar was created?
As you probably know, the roots of the calendar we use today can be traced to early Rome seven or eight centuries before the Christian Era. Initially, that Roman calendar consisted of 10 months; it began in March and ended in December.
Six of the months were 30 days in length, four had 31 days. Only 304 days!
The period following December and prior to the next new year was essentially ignored; because the main purpose of the calendar was to help with farming and the “gap days” fell during the winter, they were deemed unimportant.
January and February, the 11th and 12th months, were added to the end of the year around 650-700 B.C.
This new 12-month calendar was based on the lunar cycle (roughly 29.5 days), and the months were assigned varying lengths from 29 to 31 days. This system gave the year 355 days. To ensure that the seasons fell within the same time each year, a 13th month had to be added periodically (it was inserted between February 23rd and 24th and typically lasted 27-28 days).
Over time, the inaccuracies became quite magnified. By roughly 50 B.C. the vernal equinox that should have occurred in late March fell some eight weeks later! A major fix was necessary.
Enter the Julian calendar, introduced about 46 B.C. The big change here was the idea of basing the calendar on the solar year. A massive correction was made to bring it back in line with the seasons (the year 46 B.C. was increased to 445 days in length in order to properly align it with the equinoxes….which also ended up making January the new first month of the year).
The extra days of the extra 13th month were redistributed among the original 12, giving each either 30 or 31 days…..except for February, which retained the 29 it had previously been assigned. Leap year was introduced at this time, also.
More tinkering followed.
When Caesar died, the name of the fifth month was changed from Quintilis to July in his honor. Later, Sextilis was similarly changed in tribute to Augustus.
August had only 30 days, however. To avoid ruffling any feathers, both July and August had to be equal in length. To compensate, the order of the days in the months following were adjusted. September went from 31 to 30 days, October from 30 to 31, and so on.
The extra day for August had to come from somewhere…you guessed it…..February.
That leaves us with a grand total of 28 days!
Of course, the story of the calendar doesn’t end there, since adjustments eventually had to be made to correct inaccuracies in the Julian system. But since the Gregorian calendar in general worldwide use today retained the 28 day total for February, thus ends the tale of how the shortest month came to be different from the rest.