February: Short on Days, Long on Traditions

February 2011 Sky Chart

February: Short on Days, Long on Traditions

by Rod Kennedy

February is one of the strangest months of the entire year.  For starters it’s short, having only 28 days instead of 30 or 31 like the rest.  Second, it had great seasonal importance to the ancient Celts.  Yet it is interesting to note that some of the strangeness surrounding February has more to do with the capricious nature of human egos than any natural phenomenon.

One of the first widely used calendars was developed by the Romans.  The original Roman calendar had ten months that alternated between 30 and 31 days.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that this makes the year about 60 days short.  Since the original calendars were designed to plan agricultural activities and none occurred in the depths of winter, there were no months between December and March.  As the Roman Empire expanded and their calendar began to be shared with the world two more months were added.  One of these was February, named for the Roman god of purification.  Later, the Emperors Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus both decided they wanted months named for themselves.  Hence we have the months July and August.  Some believe that both borrowed a day from February to keep the year at the proper length but historians do not agree on this.  Some say that February always had 28 days in the hopes that winter would end quickly and spring would come sooner.  In any case in our modern calendar, February has 28 days except in a Leap Year.

To the ancient Celts, February 2nd was known as Candlemas.  It was a Cross Quarter day approximately half way between the winter solstice and the Vernal equinox.  This meant that Candlemas was the first day of Spring and the Equinox  was the middle of the season.  Today February 2nd is known as Groundhog’s day; a day in which a rodent that doesn’t even live in the Rocky Mountains is supposed to predict the weather for the following six weeks.  In addition, the first day of spring on our modern calendars doesn’t occur until the Spring Equinox in late March.

February is also a good month to observe the bright star Sirius in the constellation Canis Major.  Sirius, who’s name means “the Scorcher” To the Egyptians Sirius was the “Nile Star” because its helical rising (rising with the sun) heralded the Nile flood season.  Sirius is the brightest star in Earth’s night sky.  It is bright for a couple of reasons.  The first is that Sirius is truly a bright star.  It is a white star which means that while it is not too much bigger than our own sun it is far hotter and therefore thousands of times more luminous.  The second reason Sirius is bright is that it is very close to Earth being about 9 light years away.  Sirius is the closest bright star visible from the Northern Hemisphere.  While Proxima Centauri is closer, it is only visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

While Sirius appears white, other stars have very distinct colors.  Betelgeuse, for example, appears red while Rigel appears blue.  Capella in the constellation Auriga appears yellow while Aldeberan in Taurus looks orange. owever, February nights are not the best time to notice the subtle colors of stars.  Radiant heat from Earth’s surface causes the stars to shimmer or “twinkle” and their apparent colors can shift all over the spectrum.

February has always been an odd and in some cases sacred month.  While its night skies are filled with bright beautiful constellations the dynamics of Earth’s weather makes it less than favorable for stargazing.  Maybe its good that February is so short, it means warmer, more stable nights lie ahead as spring approaches.

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