It’s probably a good thing that February is the shortest month of the year because it certainly often seems to last the longest. Although there is a little more daylight it’s often even colder. The festivals of February do all seem to be about pushing through the last days of winter.
Groundhog Day is the secular case in point. Although originally based on European folklore, the purpose of this, now, rather silly ritual is to both playfully predict and simultaneously complain about the length of the winter season. At this point in the year, it is only six weeks anyway until the official American beginning of spring at the Vernal Equinox in March, and we all know that that fact has almost nothing to do with the weather.
The old Celtic calendar regarded February 1st as the actual beginning of spring. Days have gotten longer by then and in deep winter it’s probably good to have some kind of party. Imbolc, or Candlemas (the Christian name for the holiday), is celebrated by Neo-Pagans as the first indication of the growing sunlight. They call on Brigit, the goddess of rebirth, the hearth and the arts to bring them through the continuing cold.
This year, during the same time period in India, the 55 day festival of Mela Kumbh reached it’s apex with tens of millions (literally) making their way to Allahabad to bathe in the holy rivers. Northern India can be quite chilly this time of year and many people were bathing virtually naked in 30 degree weather. But it’s a time for purification and re-dedication, and the low temperatures didn’t get in the way.
The birthday of the Hindu Goddess Saraswati is also observed during this period in the festival Vesant Pachami. This year her birthday was right around Valentine’s day. She is the patron deity of knowledge, music and the whole process of education, so many schools begin their spring terms after receiving the blessing of Saraswati.
Chinese New Year often comes in February and this year was heralded as the Year of the Snake. It’s safe to say that about one out of every seven people on the planet celebrate this New Year, a festival which lasts for 15 days and involves visiting, gift giving, much food, drink and fireworks. It seems a fine thing to begin the New Year during such a dismal time and then spend about half the month in celebration.
In some ways the celebrations are a prelude of further observances to come. Ash Wednesday, February 13, which is the beginning of Lent in the Western Christian calendar, is preceded, in many places with Carnival or Mardi Gras. Of course Lent is leading up to the commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus and the celebration of his reported resurrection.
Jews often celebrate the festival of Purim in February. This year it is on February 23-24. Purim is an interesting and conflicted holiday, connected with both rowdy behavior and unfortunate episodes of violence, and in tone lies somewhere between Halloween and Mardi Gras. Tradition says that Purim is the only holiday that will still be observed in the world to come and yet the story of Esther that provides the frame for it contains no mention of God or any supernatural agent.
During Purim, even traditional Jews are permitted to do somethings that, under normal conditions, are simply not done. People can cross dress, make fun of authority figures and drink until one can no longer tell friend from enemy. It’s a time to blow off steam and acknowledge the frank insanity of the world. The holiday is also exactly one month from Passover, one of the most important observances of the Jewish year. Many strictly observant Jews begin their spring cleaning for Passover right after the wildness of Purim ends.
There is a serious purpose in this. February was also the month when the winter store of food could start getting a little lean. Parties are not just about the present, they are also about the hope for better times ahead.