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In praise of February

February 8, 2015

snowdrops

Other months and seasons have a better press.  We celebrate the darling buds of May and the Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness but February has few plaudits.  February fill-dike is the most well-known epithet and, while probably not far off the mark, is hardly a flattering description. However, as an Aquarian, I feel I should leap to its defence.

I did n’t always see it that way.  As the only one of my family born in the winter I was always deeply envious of my brothers able to celebrate their birthdays in the middle of the summer.  But as I have got older I have increasingly appreciated the special qualities of the month, which while firmly of the winter, offers the first tastes of the return of sun and growth.

February is originally a Latin name relating to the Roman feast of purification Februa, held on 15th of the month.  This origin is reflected in the modern name for the month in many languages.  There are, however, some more graphic alternative names, for instance Solmanath (mud month) in Old English or helmikuu in Finnish meaning month of the pearl a reference to droplets of water which freeze on the trees and look like pearls of ice.

February is also distinguished by its shortness, always exaggerated for me by the fact that January often feels like a slow moving month after the bustle leading up to Christmas, and by the occurrence of an additional day every Leap Year.  I always feel sorry for people whose birthdays fall on 29th February although I am sure it can be used as an excuse for a very special party every four years.

February is the month of Shrove Tuesday and the start of Lent.  In our modern world it has hard to get our head round the difficulties of managing diet and the provision of food through the winter months.   While it has its religious and moral significance Lent also symbolises the struggle of subsistence communities to manage when fresh food is limited.  Those fresh foods, such as cabbages, which are available, are to be cherished.  That might account for another Old English name for the month or Kalemonath (cabbage month).

In the modern commercial calendar February is dominated by Valentine’s Day.  Maybe it is a sign of my age but the relentless advertising and commercial pressure has lost my affection for this festival altogether.  There is something, in my eyes, deeply unattractive about its saccharine portrayal of romantic love, linked to the psychology of collective guilt and I can find much better occasions to celebrate the relationships most special to me in my life.

A much better aspect of the month is the progress of the Six Nations Rugby Championship.  Not only does it provide excellent entertainment but it is one of the few occasions which celebrates in a positive and friendly way the traditional rivalries of this corner of the globe.  Its progress over 6 weeks also very clearly marks the passage from winter to spring.  The first weekend is often played in wintry conditions but by the time of the last weekend spring is usually definitely with us.

The heart of why I love February is that sense of contrast.  February can offer also sorts of wintry conditions: wind, rain, snow and ice but alongside them are hints that the world will not always be held in winter’s grip.

The light is the most obvious sign.  By the start of the month, even in the North, it is obvious that the oppressive sense of darkness of the depth of winter is coming to an end.  Journeys to work end if not start in the light and in the day the light has a brighter and more open quality which it lacked in January.  During the month the change of the seasons and the lengthening of the days gathers pace.

February is also the month of snowdrops and crocuses.  Those flowers which mark the return of life and growth and whose beauty is often as much a product of the incongruence of their setting in the otherwise lifeless earth.

I find the month a powerful metaphor for life.  In the hardest of times encouragement can sometimes be given by the smallest signs that things are changing for the better.  The signs which provide a permission for hope.   In darkest days those are things of much value and beauty like the first sight of a snowdrop or crocus in February.

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