Sandy’s Garden ... February

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The Romans may have been right all along

More than two-and-three-quarter millennia ago, the Romans considered the days of the months we call January and February as unworthy of inclusion in any month, reckoning that the year started in March and finished in December … the tenth month … with the other 60-or-so days lumped together as ‘winter’, useless days which were best ignored. I know how they felt. Despite the meteorological fact that February is often the driest month of the year and often contains quite a number of sunny days, there is little obvious heat in the sun and little motivation to get out into the great outdoors and revel in the dry days. February is like November, a no-month, a waste of calendar space.

Mark you, our British ancestors had a higher regard for February than I do. In that wonderful booklet, ‘The Gardeners Monthly Directions, Shewing what is Necessary to be done throughout the Year’ … first published in London in 1698 … the compilers write: “Now the Weather begins to alter, although sometimes January be open and temperate, and this month severely cold, yet for the most part the inclining of the Sun to the Vernal Equinox, doth produce a moderation of the past colds, and encourage the ingenious Gardener to trim his trees, and stir his ground, mixing his rotten Dung in the digging thereof, for the setting and sowing of Beans, Peas, Carrots, Parsnips, Onions, Parsley, Spinage, Asparagus, Anniseeds, Corn-sallet, Fennel.” (I might add that, although I have rendered the words in a contemporary typeface rather than that used by the seventeenth-century printer, I have left intact his spelling, his use of capital letters and his liberal use of commas.) I might also add that, although I admire his sense of optimism and his willingness to look forward to a more fruitful future, I cannot pretend that I share these praiseworthy attributes.

When the better part of three thousand years ago give or take a few, the Romans decided that the days of ‘winter’ should logically be included in the calendar of months, they chose to name what was regarded as the final month of the year after a purification ceremony which marked the last full moon of the lunar year. This ceremony was Februa, the ceremony of clearing away all the assorted unwanted baggage of the year that was coming to an end in anticipation of the new year that was about to begin, its name coming from the Latin word februum meaning ‘purification’. So February was added to the names of the calendar months, moving from being the final month to its present position as the second month when the twelve are set down in what we call calendar order about two-and-a-half thousand years ago.

But assigning the second tranche of the ‘winter’ days to the month of February did not alter the character of these often cheerless days before Mother Nature has done much to shake off her winter slumbers. The proof that our pagan ancestors in these islands realised this can be found in their name for the month - Solmonath- which is usually translated as ‘mud month’! It is also worth remarking on the fact that February 3rd is St. Blaise’s Day in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints’ days, St. Blaise being the patron saint of sore throats. So despite the first signs of nature reawakening, despite the determined optimism of the instructions given to seventeenth century gardeners and despite the probability of sunshine, I shall probably find little to tempt me to venture into the garden to begin the good work for 2014. I shall, I expect, continue to regard February as something of a no-month … and did you know that February 1st always falls on the same day of the week as the previous November 1st?… and shall look forward to enjoying the sunshine beaming through the windows which protect the sheltered environment of a centrally-heated house.