The Month of February

The Grail Quest, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

At this rather bleak time of the agricultural year many hedges, gates, walls and fences would be inspected for damage and repaired. The arable fields would be harrowed and land previously sown with root crops would be turned over and in sheltered positions the early peas would be sown in the following month. Sometime before Christmas the farmer’s cattle and livestock, that had been brought down from the high pastures were then daily and amply fed with what was known as “bait”. This is a mixture of ground oats, mangolds (kale) and wheat chaff which was annually raked off from the bottom of the haylofts and cut into manageable fragments. The kale was first pulped down, the chaff added to it and the ground oats thrown onto the whole and then left overnight. The next day the porridged bait would begin to get warm and was then barrowed or skipped down to the milking cows and penned cattle or pastured sheep. It was then ladled into troughs and the cattle greatly appreciated this nourishing winter treat. Generally turnips were chopped up and fed to the ewes and later to the lambs, which encouraged their strong growth. The calves were also fed a cattle cake made of linseed (the crushed seeds of flax) and cotton grass.
Traditionally, this is a busy period for shepherds, as their ewes, who had been impregnated in late October by the lusty rams, were now bearing their first unborn spring lambs and needed extra special care and attention lest they stray or fall into the wrong hands.
The renowned poet Matthew Arnold writes of this time:

Go, for they call you, Shepherd from the hill;
Go, Shepherd, and untie the wattled cotes:
No longer leave thy wistful flock unfed,
Nor let thy bawling fellows rack their throats,
Nor the cropp’d herbage shoot another head.
But when the fields are still,
And the tired men and dogs all gone to rest,
And only the white sheep seen
Cross and recross the strips of moon-blanched green,
Come shepherd, and again renew the quest!

The ancient Celts, who used a lunar calendar, knew it as Anagantios which occurred sometime between January/February and known to them colloquially as “Stay at Home Time, Ice Moon” or “Death Moon”. This period was dedicated to the Ash or World Tree (Ygdrassil), which was the last to come into leaf and the first to drop its leaves in autumn. As a remote relative of the Olive, it was long held sacred to the ancient Greeks. Some calendar experts say Februarius got its name from a goatskin scourge or flail called a februa (lit: “means of purification.”) On the 15th day of this month Romans observed the festival of Lupercalia. During the festival, a februa was wielded by priests who used it to whip women in the belief that it would make a barren woman fertile. However, it is more correctly applied to tree branches such as Apple, Plum and Walnut that traditionally were whipped to encourage the growth of new buds. Indeed there’s a Latin verb februare, meaning to “expiate or purify.” It seems more reasonable to assume that the type of purification people had in mind when naming the month was that of the calendar year’s length, not that of women upon whom the thong was ritually applied. The only menace to gardeners was the Bullfinch which when left to his own devices took many a bud from precious orchard trees. Henceforth February became the intercalary period when the calendar was traditionally set aright. Apparently Februarius, when adopted, had but 23 days as traditionally the 23rd day of that month was the end of the calendar year. That indicates Februarius was observed in pre-Romulan times when months had as few as twenty days. Also, adding five days at year-end (to extend February’s length to 28) is similar to the change made by many other peoples who, around the time of Rome’s founding, added five days to their own calendar, but considered them to be unlucky and not part of the normal year. Romans always reconciled differences between calendar and solar year lengths during the “Month of Purification.” Whenever and however Roman calendars were modified to correspond to year length, it was always done after the 23rd day of February, traditionally the last day of the year. Even in our time, leap year is observed on the 29th -day of February. However, to calendrical purists, “leap day” is February 24, not the 29th.

Plutarch wrote: Numa…added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, however, itself, in the course of time, came to need other amendments.” (When it was observed that a leap month always immediately followed February 23.)

The White Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior)

According to the historian Livy, Numa divided the year into twelve months, corresponding to the moon’s revolutions. But as the moon does not complete thirty days in each month, there are fewer days in the lunar year than in that measured by the course of the sun. He interpolated intercalary months and so arranged them that every twentieth year the days should coincide with the same position of the sun as when they started, the whole twenty years being thus complete. He also established a distinction between the days on which legal business could be transacted and those on which it could not, because it would sometimes be advisable that there should be no business transacted with the people. Others claim that it was not until 452 BCE that a month named Intercalaris was added to the Roman calendar in order to add those days required to bring calendar length back into phase with the solar year. This month also began after the 23rd day of Februarius. It was observed every second year and was said to have had a length of either 22 or 23 days, with the remaining five days of Februarius added after them.
The Anglo-Saxons called February “Sprout-Kele” a reference possibly to colewort or potwort, a type of poor man’s asparagus, now known to us as purple-sprouting broccoli or possibly curly-kale. The purple colouring is thought to have occurred purely accidentally by wild bees cross-pollinating from the flowers of red cabbage or beetroot with those of other green brassicas. While February was traditionally celebrated with the festival of Brigantia, heralding the return of the light-bringing Goddess in pre-patriarchal times. The farming almanacs of the time generally thought that if the sun appeared on the second day of February it was a bad omen.

T’is an omen bad, the yeomen say
If Phoebus shews his face the second day.

It may be of interest to point out that the region we now recognise as N. & W Yorkshire was known in pre-Roman times as Brigantia after the ancient tribes that settled there. In celebration of the 3rd quarter of the yearly round, this ancient Celtic festival was held on the 1st of February in honour of the Goddess Brigit or Bridey (Festival of Imbolc or Oimelc). St. Bridget, the patron Saint of Milkmaids is one of Ireland’s favourite saints who lived in the late fifth to sixth centuries in Kildare. Essentially, this was a time of purification and an opportunity to welcome the fertility back to the land. It was later substituted by the Christian festival of Candlemass in honour of the purification of the Virgin Mary, when, in Roman times two turtledoves representing concupiscence or sexual impropriety were ritually sacrificed. The people went in procession with lit torches and set fire to the fields thereby purifying them of disease and malefic insects. This tradition or custom is largely imitated in the candles which are lit in Christian churches even today on the 7th of January. It is said that at this time the rural people could now dispense with candles (ie: artificial light) and order their lives according to the natural lights of the Sun and Moon.

Candlemass as celebrated in Church

On Candlemas:
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Then winter will have another flight.
If on Candlemas Day it be shower and rain,
Winter is done and will not come again.
Thou should on Candlemas day
Throw candles and candle-sticks away.

The original Greek or possibly pagan festival symbolised the abduction of Persephone, the adolescent daughter of Demeter, a grain goddess, by the Lord of the Underworld Hades, or she was known to the Romans as Prosperina (daughter of Ceres) who was likewise abducted by Pluto. However, according to other sources she was literally swallowed up by a chasm that suddenly opened in the earth, perhaps an indirect reference to a ploughed furrow, while she was out with her mother picking crocuses. Persephone or Kore, the virgin maiden was bound by the gods to spend six months of the year underground with Hades and after harvest time six months above it with Olympian Zeus. However, at this time the Celtic people made effigies of corn dollies, baked barley cakes and held processions, dancing and merrymaking. Today we celebrate February with two important festivals, namely Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday, traditionally held on Tuesday, this being sacred to the God Mars. A festival marking the beginning of Lenten which takes place at the same time as Mardi Gras, and is said to denote the end of winter and the onset of the beginning of spring. In pagan times this often involved the burning of effigies, or them being cast into the waters or rivers. Pancakes were also made hence its popular name “Pancake Tuesday” when carnivals opened and many games were played. While on the 14th we might wish to celebrate St Valentines’ Day, which is usually dedicated to winsome lovers all over the world. This festival date being linked to the Roman goddess Venus (Lupercalia), so that St Valentine himself must be a type of sanitised surrogate for Aphrodite‘s companion Cupidos or Greek Eros. It also coincides with the mating season of certain birds.
In harmony with the time the male lascivious partridge was known therefore to coo and woo his mate and then with a sharp “ker-wit” to leave the covey in search of another lover. On smallholdings the first forced, bright red stalks of rhubarb appeared. In the gardening calendar many farmers and gardeners now took the opportunity to layer and trim their hedges of hawthorn in the month of February.

Down with the rosemary and bays
Down with the mistletoe
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show
The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer
Until the dancing Easter Day
On Easter’s Eve appear.
Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.
When yew is out then birch comes in
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant hue
To honour Whitsuntide.
Green rushes, then, and sweeter bents
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house.

According to the Arthurian Book of Days this period corresponds to the quest of Sir Perceval. The original hero of the Grail Quest, the son of King Pellinore according to Malory but relegated to second best in the “Queste del Sant Graal” by the spotless Sir Galahad. He first appeared in Chretien de Troye‘s unfinished masterpiece “Le Conte de Graal”. By various accounts he is something of a simpleton and “mummy’s boy”. Although his mother attempts to protect him from the rough warring tendencies of the male line of the family – all of whom have since met horrific deaths in the service of knighthood. One day five dazzling young knights ride by Perceval‘s home, astonished by their elegant and noble presence and thinking they are angels he enquires after their names and origin. They tell him about their mission as knights of the Round Table, the court of King Arthur and so forth. In admiration of these men Perceval then resolves to become a knight himself and ceases his employment at the family country home, deserts his distraught mother and volunteers as an apprentice in the King’s army. Despite his obvious inexperience and sycophantic airs he is eager, willing, enthusiastic and fearless. However, he develops a psychological conflict with the remarks of his tutor Gornemanz and some of the advice given him by his mother. As a result he commits a series of blunders and quite by chance nevertheless finds himself at the Grail Castle, at the home of the Maimed King. In the foreboding procession he is shown the sacred objects, the bleeding lance, the silver chalice, and the candelabra. Yet in the ensuing awe of the situation when given the opportunity to ask the crucial question, the answer to which would have healed the King he neglectfully refrains. The reason given is that Gornemanz had cautioned him on being too talkative.
After yet another disappointing adventure Perceval continues his errant wanderings and then finally completes his knighthood education. He then goes out until he meets a girl called Blanchefleur and falls in love with her. He meets Sir Gawain and befriends him, then hears from a local hermit the real reason why he failed in his quest to the Maimed King’s castle. He tells him that because he’d left his mother to die that he must now atone for this sin before he can return to the King’s Castle and make another final attempt. At this point of Chretien’s narrative the story breaks off and four other writers have subsequently made attempts to finish it. Wolfram de Essenbach‘s version is truer to its symbolic and metaphorical significance than that of Chretiens’. He emphasises the transcendent quality of Perceval to choose between family, state and his own personal salvation thereby enabling him to continue the quest. Mea Culpa! – Perceval had just one chance to heal the Maimed King – an archetypal King Lear, just as we have only one life. His philosophy seems to be “nobody lives for ever and we are learning by our own mistakes”. His second attempt is more successful and he is told the meaning of the mysteries surrounding the sacred objects. The spear is that which pierced Christs’ side, and that The Grail was indeed the sacred cup into which the blood and water of Jesus Christ had been collected. He is told that the Fisher King is a direct descendant of Joseph de Arimathea and therefore his own uncle. He discovers that King Pelles has been wounded when attempting to mend a sword that had been broken by a knight named Pertinax and that only the death of this knight could secure the King’s well being again. So Perceval seeks out the knight and kills him. Towards the end of the tale he discovers that there is no higher calling than to serve the Grail and that the Grail serves all humanity. This version seems to parallel an earlier Celtic tale about Pheredur found in the Red Book of Hergest begun around 1318 and completed by 1454, but Perdur is also mentioned in the “Annales Cambriae”(440-1066). In this blood-thirsty version Pheredur enters the Magic Castle “Caer Sidi” having taken an oath of silence with his uncle and beholds two young men carrying a bloody spear, wailing and moaning in despair, then three maidens appear with the head of a man on a chalice. Much of the pagan gore and barbaric events of this tale are naturally omitted from the later chivalric romances. Also the name Pherdur and Perceval have some obvious similarities “per” meaning basin and “keval” or “kedur” meaning companion.

Literary Sources:

Brewer’s Phrase & Fable; revised by Adrian Broom (Cassell Publishing Group)
Chamber’s Book of Days; R. Chambers (Chambers Harrap Publishers)
The English Year; Steve Roud (Penguin Press)
The Arthurian Book of Days (Brockhampton Press, Caitlin & John Matthews)

The links to my publications, on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy; “Shakespeare’s Qaballah” and my anthology of poetry; “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


Published by Leonidas Kazantheos

In the early part of my career I have worked extensively in media, the arts and theatre as an innovator and environmental conservationist and much later took on a role as an investigative journalist and commentator on the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy.

One thought on “The Month of February

  1. Reblogged this on Qudos Academy and commented:

    The latest in my monthly series of “A Rural Calendar” examining the traditions and customs of the inhabitants of the British Isles from the past. This year, 2023 is numerically significant especially when converted to days, (2023/17=119, and when divided by seven, the number of days in a week =17)


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