What Did February Do to Piss Off the Rest of the Months?

Ever wonder why February, with just 28 days (except once every four years, when the sun throws it a bone with a 29th), gets the short end of the stick? February probably does too; the best reasoning out there is basically that the Romans decided to make it the weird one and stuck with it.

First, some background:

We have the months October (oct meaning eight), November (nov is nine) and December (dec…you get the picture), but they’re the 10th, 11th and 12th months. That’s because the original Roman calendar only had — you guessed it — only 10 months. The last month of the year was December and the year would start anew in March.

The calendar itself held a total of 304 days across 10 months. There were still days that happened between December and March, but they were not on the calendar. Because Rome was a society based on agriculture, the calendar was used strictly to denote times of harvesting and planting. Since they couldn’t harvest anything in the winter months, those days were left out.

This, of course, was no way to run a timeframe, and so January and February were eventually added, around the 8th century BCE.

The king Numa Pompilius wanted the calendar to match the lunar year with its 355 days, so he added two new months to the calendar. He added Ianuarius (January) and Februarius (February). There are a couple of theories as to why February got stuck with 28 days. Neither one is particularly redeemed by February. It sort of just got the short end of the stick.

According to Slate, both January and February were given 28 days at first, but that put the year at 354 days. Even numbers were considered bad luck back then, so January was given an extra day. “No one knows why February was left with 28 and remained an unlucky month,” the Slate article reads. “It may be related to the fact that Romans honored the dead and performed rites of purification in February. (The word februare means ‘to purify; in the dialect of the ancient Sabine tribe.)”

The Straight Dope‘s article on the topic offers even less rationale. February, the article says, was the last month of the year at the time, as it and January were essentially tacked on at the end. “If there had to be an unlucky month,” the article says, “better to make it a short one.”

As the centuries wore on, the lunar calendar was deemed less than spectacular. Some years, the Romans inserted an extra 22-day month after February. This, too, was a horribly inefficient way to keep the months on season. So Julius Caesar would make major revisions to the calendar in 46 BCE, adjusting to the solar-friendly 365 days — plus the occasional extra day on the leap year. (Quintilis was ultimately rebranded in his honor, by name of July, and Sextilis his adopted heirs, by August). Still, even during this chance for the redistribution of days, February stuck at 28.

The sad, sorry truth is that there are no real, concrete answers behind this seeming injustice.  But rest assured that those pesky Romans are responsible.