Happy SJP Week
“Why does February feel like one big Tuesday?”
“February-the month of love??!! No wonder-it’s the shortest month of the year!”
Dinesh Kumar Biren
February is not one of the most beloved months in our culture. For many folks it seems unnecessary; it is too short, and the only reason it seems to exist is to delay the coming of Spring. For those of us in the mid-Atlantic region it has also been seen as the mean jokester of winter-yes, the sun is visible sooner and the morning is arriving progressively earlier. That seems good. But it is also often a month with bitter cold, great and howling winds, and snow and ice storms. It almost seems as if we now have the gift of more light, but only to better see and bear witness to our misery and suffering. It seems like a cruel and ironic joke. As as Tuesday for some folks only exists to lengthen the time it takes to get to the middle of the week, February only exists to lengthen the time is takes for us to get to spring. For many of us that is unforgiveable.
The Romans, from whom we get much of our calendar, did not seem to like or understand February much either. It’s becoming a month is attributed to the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who supposedly added January and February to the calendar around 710 B.C.E. Supposedly he wanted to more accurately reflect the time it took for the earth to travel around the sun, and adding those two months made the calendar more accurately reflect a solar year. But it took some time for February to find a comfortable home within the Roman calendar. Over the decades it moved from the last month of the calendar to the second month, and it took a number of calendar revisions before its length was finally established at three consecutive years of 28 days with a fourth year of 29 days. But by the time our current Gregorian calendar was adopted, February had its place firmly established as month #2. And so it remains.
Despite their seeming uncertainty about the month, the Romans saw February as a month of important ritual occurrences. There were at least 7 regularly observed private and public Roman rituals during this month, and many had to do with family and fertility. Februa, for which the month is named, was a time for ritual purification and cleansing. It was probably pre-Roman, but it was so important to Romans that it was subsumed into the Roman festival of the Lupercalia that honored the founding of the city and strove to rid it of evil spirits and bad thoughts prior to the spring plantings. It was believed that this cleansing was necessary to allow good health to enter the city and for a return of the fertility so necessary for planting. February also featured a new moon, and that seemed to be a celestial confirmation of the need for ritual cleansing.
I am not a lover of February-I am one of those who has tired of winter by mid-February and wants spring to return. But this second full week of February has always meant a lot to me since I was a little kid. For it features the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (the 12th) and Frederick Douglass (the 14th, which is why historian Carter G. Woodson established that week as Negro History Week. As a kid that was a time when my church, black newspapers and magazines as well as radio stations had features on aspects of Black history. I was always finding out something new and exciting, and this fed my curiosity and ultimately helped lead me to becoming a history teacher. I looked forward to this week with excitement. We now have Black History Month, but this second week still remains important to me. For not only does it feature Lincoln and Douglass’ birthday; it also features February 11, the day long imprisoned South African activist and later South African President Nelson Mandela was released from prison. That is definitely another reason for joy and celebration for me and another reason for loving this week.
Mandela is one of my all-time heroes and inspirations. The way he never gave up his political ideas and positions but did not get carried away by hate and anger still inspire me. I came to think of him as South Africa’s Martin Lither King- hate the system but not the people in it. And he tried to govern the country that way as well in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation process. So February 11, 1990 became a very important day for me. Like the signing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, it presented me with something wonderful in the real world that I could barely have imagined happening. It seemed impossible-like a miracle or a dream come true. And every year that date fills me with joy. No, it does not make me like February any more, not by a long shot. I am still impatient for this month to end and for spring to finally get here. But I now think of this second week of February as, “Social Justice Possibility Week”- a time to focus on the possibilities of change after years of struggle and hope. Maybe, in some strange way, this is one of our modern world’s form of cleansing and purification- a regular reminder that change is possible with action and struggle, and that those actions and struggles on behalf of change can lead to something better. So as I bundle up and dress in my 4 layers, I am lifted up by this week. I am reminded that February can be a time of wonder and possibility, even as I await the arrival of the next season. Happy Social Justice Possibility Week. May we all live in and see the possibility of change.