February: a month like no other

Cold, grey, wet - the past weeks have been true to Benjamin Leader Williams' iconic painting 'February Fill-Dyke', right. Paul Vallely composes an ode to the time of year we love to hate
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The Independent Online

It was, originally, the last month of the year. Until the 8th century BC, the Romans had only 10 months - March to December. The depth of winter was beyond naming. Then a chap called Numa Pompilius succeeded Romulus as the second King of Rome and, out of a sense of neatness, added January and February. This latter took its name from the Latin word februa which means "expiatory offerings". It was, from the outset, a time for purgation and purification. Which is why, wags have it, February is the shortest of the 12 months.

Yet it is a time of bleak beauty, as the painting February Fill-Dyke by the 19th-century painter Benjamin Williams Leader reminds us. The eminent Victorian specialised in winter scenes, with bare trees, a dyke filled with melted snow and a chill to the air which the viewer can almost feel. February is indeed the fag-end of the year, when the earth is quiet and barren, a drab no-man's-land between winter and spring. No wonder, long ago, the Anglo-Saxons dubbed it "mud month" - and, most recently, the authorities in New Brunswick in Canada have this year made it Suicide Prevention Month.

It had another name in England in days gone by - Kalemonath (cabbage month). For this is the time of year which country folk used to call "the hungry time", when most of the winter vegetables have been consumed and the spring ones are not yet ready for cutting. One exception was known as "hungry gap kale", because it was one of the few edible plants that could survive.

Kale soup, a staple in many humble cottages in February, may not be common fare today but this is still a time of culinary dearth. The great harvest of autumn has been consumed. The season for game is over - a fact which male pheasants seem to comprehend, for they are now to be seen strolling boldly in bare ploughed fields and even, cockily, across country roads.

Yet it is not a month without comfort. The bare branches of the garden trees reveal the bright colours of the birds which, for the rest of the year, dart hidden among the foliage: the red and yellow flashes of the goldfinch, the scarlet breast of the robin.

In the kitchen, along with hearty beef stews, there still wafts the heavy rich smell of hare, which it is legal to sell until the end of this month. Elizabeth David had a marvellous recipe for a civet of hare marinated in red wine. It contains the improbable ingredients of dark black chocolate and pine-nuts, and it tastes particularly well on chill damp February days. Hare also tastes good with red cabbage, which is in season and which, slow-cooked, marries well with the English Bramleys and Coxes which are still good at this time of year.

Indeed, some food benefits from February's cold storage. Root vegetables, their flavour and sweetness intensified by the cold, are at their best this month. Spinach is heavy and singularly full of flavour, as are leeks. But these are exceptions. The rich plenitude of autumn is over and the fresh crispness of spring is yet to come.

Through the ages religions have made a virtue of this. The Christian church's Lenten fast comes just at the point when in the old times the food stored away the previous autumn was running out, or had to be used up before it went bad in store.

February usually sees Shrove Tuesday - though sometimes the lunar calendar pushes it into March - when eggs and dairy products, traditionally eschewed along with meat in Lent, were turned into pancakes in a feast before the 40-day fast begins.

The extent of the interweaving of the religious and secular cultures is evidenced by the word Lent itself, whose origins in the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, referred to the lengthening of days as the spring equinox approaches. Fish, the traditional Lenten fare, provides some of the high points of February food: halibut, skate, turbot, gurnard, lemon sole and sprats are all good just now, with brill starting to be landed in the second half of the month. The poor man's shellfish, mussels, are plump and plentiful and cheap this month.

There is ambiguity in the garden too. Though some will argue that the best place to be at this time of year is in an armchair by the fire leafing through seed catalogues, many gardeners are venturing out, and beyond the greenhouse. They have pruned the winter jasmine as the flowers faded. They have, this week, cut back the roses to encourage next month's growth. They have even got out their spades to turn the soil in readiness for planting.

And there are signs of life already. Many dull beds are enlivened with bright crops of snowdrops. Crocuses are pushing through the edges of the lawns. In ponds, amorous amphibians have emerged from hibernation, with frogs croaking wildly after dusk. Great spotted masses of frogspawn cling to the pond-sides. Wildlife enthusiasts will have spotted the odd newt.

For all that, February is notoriously the time of the year when nature cannot quite make up its mind. American folklore symbolises that with Groundhog Day on 2 February when the hibernating animal peeps out of his winter quarters to test the air. If he sees his shadow in the bright winter light he pops back for another six weeks' nap, but if the day is cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

This tradition is best known in its American form, but it is European in its origin. In both England and Germany, whose emigrants took it to the US, the lore was that on Candlemas - a religious festival marking the Purification of the Virgin Mary on 2 February - the weather to come could be foretold:

If Candlemas is mild and pure,
Winter will be long for sure.
If Candlemas brings wind and snow,
Then spring will very soon show.

Certainly every gardener knows that the coldest weather of the entire year sometimes occurs in February when frosts can canker camellias and shrivel the buds of many other plants. Quickly hope kindles, quickly hope recedes, as the poet puts it.

All of which is fitting for the mystery at the heart of the month which some years has 28 days and some years 29. Legend has it that February once had 30, but that it lost a day in a posthumous rivalry between two Roman emperors. Originally July, the fifth month after the start of the year in March, was called Quintilis, but its name was changed in honour of Julius Caesar. When the sixth month, Sextilis, was renamed to honour Augustus Caesar, it was thought unseemly that Julius should have a month with 31 days and Augustus only 30. So one was nicked from February. (September, October, November and December escaped unscathed.) That's the story.

But February is more than a month which, throughout history, nobody has much liked. It contains the mysterious day which, every fourth year, reconciles the solar and the lunar calendars.

Because seasons and astronomical events do not repeat at an exact number of days, a calendar which had the same number of days each year would - over time - become out of sync with nature. The intercalation of an additional day every fourth year corrects the tendency for the two to drift ever further apart. February is the guardian of this mystical process, which is why those - like my soon-to-be six-year-old son - born on 29 February celebrate their birthdays on the 28th rather than on the first day of March.

February, they know, is the most special month. It is pregnant with ambiguity. Its trees are bare but sap is moving unseen within their boughs. From time to time the clouds are pierced by wintery sunshine, watery but dazzling. The days are gradually getting longer. It is what the Eastern Orthodox call the season of "bright sadness".

Look again at Benjamin Leader's painting. The sky beyond is bright with hope. Patient and bare, the unbreathing landscape awaits the birth of spring, eager, hidden inside the land, and inside us all.