Sunday, March 31, 2019

February - Another Rabbit Hole

I was born in February.  That alone makes it my favorite month.  Adding to that auspicious event the fact  that many of my favorite people — best friend, daughter-in-law, mother, paternal grandma, enough other close friends and family to have a big party, and a couple of presidents; also claim February as their birth month, got me thinking about its unique position in our year. I got curious as to why it is the shortest month and why it became the one month with an inconsistent number of days.  Hence the Rabbit Hole.

It all starts with humans.  At some point in human history, someone decided that a day — the span between sunrises, or sunsets — should be subdivided into equal parts and, through diligent study, or maybe over many flagons of strong wine, determined that 24 parts seemed to work.  Thus began humanity's obsession with time, culminating, one hopes, in the formation of the International Earth Rotation and Reference System Service (IERS) which manages the length of a day because it turns out it isn't exactly 24 hours — close but no cigar.

Even though the day is a bit wobbly length-wise, there are 365 of them in a year.  Well not quite.  The solar year is actually 365.2422 days long (365.25 incorrectly rounded) requiring a day to be added from time to time to keep things in sync; February is where that happens.  If you want more detail about the seemingly simple word year, here you go Year.

Let's get back to February.

The Roman Calendar began its new year in March, and at its inception the year  had only ten months with a total of 304 days.  Very soon two more months were tacked on: January with 29 then 31 days, and February with either 23 or 28 days, depending on the need for five more days to come closer to the actual solar year.  So the origin of February was intended to make up for the calendar year being too short, solar-wise.  When Julius Caesar got hold of it he flipped the calendar around so the new year began on January first and that month was given 31 days.  Next came February at 28, then the March, April, May, and June, followed by July (nee Quintilis, the fifth month which it no longer was so Julius renamed it), August (Sextilis with an additional day added and renamed to honor Augustus).  The last four months stayed as they were, except that December was first shortened to 29 days when January and February were tacked on the end, then boosted to 31 when they were moved to the beginning of the year.

Got all that?

Notice that February still drew the short straw, even today it flips to 29 days on almost every year divisible by four — centuries divisible by four e.g. 1600, 2000, are exempt (because of the rounding error above.)  So it seems to me that my month has been the dumping ground in humanity's attempt to define a year.  I accept that as kind of an honor.  February can handle change.  So can we who were born into it.

If you want to continue down the rabbit hole try Week, but don't say I didn't warn you.  Signal me if you ever come back.