Why does February only have 28 days?

Why is February called like that? And why is it the only short month in the year? Here's the story of a strange month, unloved by its creators.

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This year, some say that February will be a perfect month. Despite increasing lock down despair. Despite particularly bleak news. Despite the fact that it will be the most complicated month for sleep. No, it is a perfect month because February 2021 starts on a Monday and ends on a Sunday. It's a small incident that is repeated every 6 to 11 years, and that will happen again in 2027, 2038, 2049, 2055, 2066, 2077, 2083, 2094, and 2100.

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The creation of the month of February

The Roman calendar originally had only 10 months. This was long before the Gregorian calendar, designed at the end of the 16th century. In Rome, the New Year was celebrated in March. 10 months followed, with unequal durations, between 30 and 31 days. These months followed the cycles of the moon. The Roman year thus lasted 304 days, and then there were about 60 days of non-months (months without agricultural activity) wherein they waited for the return of the sun's cycle to start the following year (the awakening of nature in Spring).

Around 713 BC, the Roman king Numa Pompilius decided to create two last months to end the year: January and February. February takes its name from the Latin Februare which means to purify. It also refers to the Etruscan mythology god Februa. His domain: death and purification. So, why give the name of Februa, for this month of February? Because it is the rainy month in Rome. And water purifies. Rain = purification = Februare = February. And that is why at this time, they celebrated the Februales, expiatory feasts to honour the dead.

Whether it was before Julius Caesar, or after his calendar reform, the month of February was not very popular with the Romans. Why? Because of the number of days: 28. And because of its place in the year: 12th month of the year. It then became the 2nd month of the year when Caesar decided that the year would begin in January. So that makes two, eight, and twelve. A bucket of even numbers. And according to the beliefs of the Romans, gods do not like even numbers. They only like odd numbers. This is what led the Romans to gleefully despise this month.

One reason (or not) to point the finger at February: it is the month of fever and diseases.

Why is February shorter?

According to legend, February is shorter because of an emperor's whim. The names of the first months of the Roman year are named to honour the gods: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius. To honour a Caesar elevated to godhood post-mortem, the month Quintilis (which is not the name of a god) was scratched off to name it July instead. Julius = July. Julius Caesaris said to have snagged one day off of February to have a long July of 31 days.

Then came Emperor Augustus, adopted son to Julius Caesar. A little jealous, he also wanted a month in his name. He therefore took the month Sextilis to give it his name Augustus (hence the word August in English). But to put Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus on an equal footing, it would have been decided to take another day off of February. Thus, August has 31 days, like July. Despite this fun story, the explanation is generally disputed without providing any other explanation.

In reality, the explanation is more prosaic, and rooted in maths and astronomy. To make a long explanation shorter: a calendar year (365 days) is not perfectly aligned to a solar year (the time in which the earth rotates around the sun). And to account for the imperfection, we've devised leap years, wherein every four years we get a 29th of February, which compensates for the imperfection. February also grants us some crazy anecdotes though: Sweden, for example, decided that there would be a February 30th in 1712. Or how about the welsh who call February: 'y mis bach,' meaning 'shortest month.' Now, there's pragmatism!

Anyway, just to make sure that February remains a peculiar month, know that it is the only one during which, depending on the years and the moon cycles, no full moon may be observed. Though that won't happen in February, since there will be a full moon on the 27th.

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