Most of the months of the year were named for Roman gods and goddesses. Mars – March, Aphrodite – April, Maia – May… and so on, at least up until September. Then, someone was either lazy or atheist, because the last few were named for Latin numbers September – Sep – 7, October – Oct – 8, November – Nov – 9 and December – Dec – 10. That’s right: The old, old Roman calendar only had 10 months until someone figured out that 10 months was not enough time for the earth to tripsy around the sun. So January, named for the god Janus, and February were added.
You still with me?
For awhile, February was the last month of the year and March 1 was New Year’s Day. Which made it a lot more pleasant standing in Times Square watching the ball drop. But then, some royal meddler muddied the waters by making January and February the first two months. So ball-watchers freeze their… patooties off instead. But when February was the last month of the year, it was named not for any god or goddess, not for any Latin number, but for a Roman festival: Februalia or Lupercalia, The Festival of Cleansing!
And how do you celebrate The Festival of Cleansing? You clean up your act. You clean up everything: wash your body (remember, this was not a time when daily showers were the norm and you can well imagine that a mid-summer chariot race in Naples could burn out your nose hairs.) You would scrub your house, wash the dog. Or goat. Or ox. And you even cleaned up the city – not only of trash but of evil spirits. You wanted everything spotless and shipshape before you sipped some bubbly, grabbed a kiss and watched the ball.
But then, when February got booted from the last month of the year to second place, the cleansing festival continued and may have become one of the origins of the term, “spring cleaning.”
But there’s more!
The festival of Februalia was so popular, it even got a god and goddess named after it. Usually, it’s the other way around, but the god, Februus and the goddess, Febris, were probably named in honor of the hose-it-down party.
The Roman Christian Church, always ready to jump in and capitalize on the Pagan parties, placed Candlemas in February – celebrating Jesus’ presentation at the temple and… imagine this… Mary’s purification. The yet-another-unfortunate-and-demeaning-tradition at that time was to purify the mother after she gave birth to a male baby. She was considered “unclean” for seven days after the birth and then had to stay home for 33 days until her blood was purified. So Candlemas, the celebration of Mary’s cleansing, got plopped conveniently right in the same moth with Februalia. Another cozy Christian/Pagan arrangement.
So with all that historical gobbledegook, some suggestions on ways to celebrate Februalia:
- Clean out your fridge
- Pick up litter in your neighborhood
- Change your sheets
- Light a candle
- Read some Mary Oliver, and….
- Take a long hot bath