The month of February is the second month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. It is also the shortest, with just 28 days and the only month that has less than 30 days. Every four years, an extra day is added to February, giving it a 29th day. This is called a leap year.
Like January before it, February didn’t use to exist – the Roman calendar only had 10 months starting with March. However, come 713 B.C., the Roman king Numa Pompilius added these two months to the calendar. The name February comes from the original Roman name ‘Februarius’, which came from the Latin ‘februum’ meaning purification. This was because of a purification ritual called Februa that was held on the full moon at this time of year.
In the northern hemisphere, February is the last month of winter, while in the southern hemisphere it is the final month of summer. From then on, the seasons shift into spring and autumn in the northern and southern hemispheres, respectively. When looking up at the night sky, the constellations of Aquarius and Pisces can be seen. Other astronomical spectacles to be enjoyed in the month of February are the meteor showers of Alpha Centaurids, Beta Leonids, Delta Cancrids, the Omicron Centaurids, Theta Centaurids, Eta Virginids and Pi Virginids.
In British history, the month of February saw many significant events. Starting in the 16th century, a succession crisis after the death of Henry VIII saw Lady Jane Grey coronated as queen. Her rule was short, however, and the 16-year-old was usurped and beheaded on 12 February 1554 by Henry’s first daughter, Mary Tudor. More heads rolled in 1587, when Mary Queen of Scots, rival to the English throne, was beheaded by her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, after being found guilty of treasonous plots. Queen Elizabeth was a controversial figure in the realm of religion and, years prior, in February 1570, had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. Fast-forward to the 20th century, while Britain had long had female monarchs, Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to become the leader of the Conservative Party. She would go on to become the first female Prime Minister in 1979.
Looking at American history, in the early 19th century, the war between the US and Mexico ended in February 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It had a significant geopolitical impact as the US acquired territory in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas in exchange for $15 million.
Come the middle of the century, the American Civil War was being waged between 1861 and 1865. On 3 February 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attempted an armistice with the Confederates. The four-hour peace conference failed in stalemate, however, as Lincoln insisted an armistice could only occur if the Confederates acknowledged Federal Authority, while the Confederates insisted on an armistice first. The war thus continued for another three months.
The 1860s was a difficult time on many fronts for the US, with Apache Chief Cochise arrested in February 1861 for raiding a ranch. When he escaped, he declared war on the Americans, thus starting the 25-year-long Apache Wars.
February was a month that saw gains and struggles for equality in America: In 1870, in the aftermath of the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederate States, the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, guaranteeing the right of citizens to vote, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Rampant discrimination in the form of Jim Crow Laws in the south would continue to impact the lives of people of color.
In the late 20th century, America was in the grips of social change with the Civil Rights Movement. In February 1960, four African-American students were refused service when they ordered coffee at a lunch counter at a Greensboro department store enforcing racial segregation. Rather than leave, they decided to sit down for hours. It inspired sit-ins all over southern states and resulted in over 1,600 arrests of participating protestors.
Notable birthdays in the month of February include: George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1895), Ronald Reagan (1911), Charles Dickens (1812), Thomas Edison (1847), Abraham Lincoln (1809), Charles Darwin (1809), Galileo Galilei (1564), Susan B. Anthony (1820), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473), George Washington (1732), W.E.B. Du Bois (1868).
Notable deaths in the month of February include: King George VI of England (1952), Apache Chief Geronimo (1909), Malcolm X (1965).