By I. smiley G. Calderon
There’s truly no better month to refresh and renew your personal outlook and yearlong goals—a perfect time to really reevaluate and reignite your year’s focus and plan—than in February. That’s right.
It’s even in the name.
It’s no secret that February is named after the ancient Roman time of purification, called februum, when, on the 15th of the month (full moon in the old Roman calendar), the purification ceremony and ritual, Februa, was held.
In fact, the whole month was filled with februum and anything, really, could become februa and be used to purify you and your home. Woollen cloths, tree branches, roasted grain and salt—all for the “sacred purgation,” as St. Augustine characterized this special month.
Februa predates Rome, actually, and has roots in the pre-Roman people known as Sabines, who called their purification ritual and festival Lupercalia. Festivities ensued from the 13th to the 15th for purifying the city by removing evil spirits and releasing fertility and health throughout the people.
At its culmination, the Luperci, or “brothers of the wolf,” priests of Lupercalia, would celebrate purification in a sacrificial feast where they would cut out thongs of skin from their sacrificed animal and take them on an energetic run throughout the city in a counterclockwise direction clubbing anyone in their way with their shaggy thongs of meat—all while nude. And the people who got hit with the thongs were “purified” and blessed with fertility.
The Luperci were pretty popular with their leather thongs, which they called februare, the word meaning “to purify.” Crazy times, for sure, but can you imagine a better way to get purified and blessed for the new year than by getting whipped by a sweaty naked wolf priest?
Anyway. The point is that February is all about purification and purging—fertility and rebirth.
But today, most Americans only know February (or, as so many of us pronounce it, “Feb-YOO-ary”) as that short month where the Super Bowl happens. Sure, America’s favorite national holiday at the gridiron arena takes place the first Sunday in February. But, there’s so much more to February than that.
February is also African-American History Month, or Black History Month, in the United States. This special designation came from a successful Negro History Week momentum that eventually morphed into a yearly monthlong recognition and celebration by the Black United Students at Kent State University in Ohio starting in 1970.
From there, this annual monthlong appreciation of Black culture spread throughout colleges and universities and throughout community and cultural centers all across America until it was officially recognized as a national observance by President Gerald Ford in 1976 during the nation’s bicentennial celebration. It has been celebrated nationwide ever since.
Negro History Week was started in 1926 by Black historian Carter G. Woodson in the second week of February, a confluence of the birthday celebrations of emancipator President Abraham Lincoln and legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass, on the 12th and 14th, respectively. Fifty years later, this special American week had become a special American month.
But we all know that February is also the month of love, right? St. Valentine and Valentine notes and all that stuff. Well, at least that’s the story our pocketbooks tell us with billions and billions of dollars spent in Valentine’s Day sales across the nation to celebrate the season.
Sorry to burst your heart-shaped bubble. The 14th of February might not be all what you think it is. Truth be told, if it weren’t for clever American marketing and sales ingenuity in postcard and greeting card companies, you might not even know about St. Valentine.
Heck, not even the Catholic church seems to know who St. Valentine really was (or, who they were—yes—there as more than one St. Valentine!), even though it was the church that made him a saint and established his day, the Feast of St. Valentine, aka St. Valentine’s Day, way back in 496 C.E.
In 1969, the Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Roman Calendar because “so little is known about him.” What we do know about the St. Valentines is that they were Christian martyrs from the third century: one from a Roman North African province, another from Terni and the other, the most famous, from nearby Rome. The latter was martyred by beheading under the reign of pre-Christian Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus on Feb. 14, 269 C.E.
The tradition holds that during intense Christian persecution, St. Valentine was a zealous evangelist who performed illegal Christian marriages at the time for engaged couples defying Roman law. And he paid the ultimate price for it. It is said that on the day of his execution while in jail, after having healed the jailer’s blind daughter, St. Valentine wrote her a note signed “Your Valentine.” Executed for faith and love.
Remember, all of this happened during the pre-Christian, pagan Roman purification festivals of Lupercalia and Februa. Indeed, it seems that the Romans had wanted to purge themselves of their Christian pests. But, what a turn of events when, just 44 years later, Emperors Licinius Augustus and Constantine I issued their Edict of Milan to end all Roman religious persecution—especially Christian persecution—with the order to treat Christians benevolently, “without molestation.” Faith and love wins.
And, some 180 years later in 496 C.E., when Pope Gelasius I officially instituted St. Valentine’s Day, how convenient was it for church leaders of the day to celebrate the life of their heroic martyr of love in place of their ancient once-venerated pagan festivals of purification and fertility.
But, perhaps this evolution goes hand in hand.
After all, isn’t love capable of the most thorough cleaning and purification possible? Love has been known to clean the dirtiest of hearts. And, what better month to clean your heart than in American Heart Month?
And when you cleanse yourself with love, hopefully then your eyes will see the beauty still all around you today. The beauty of our collective humanity and its wonderful diverse fabrics can be seen and celebrated throughout our communities when we look beyond ourselves.
When we look beyond our own personal history and culture and appreciate others’ histories and cultures, we grow as a united people. We promote love. We promote cleansing —we promote healing.
And, healing is what we need now more than ever during this year’s cleansing season. But, instead of just simply purifying our outside bodies with tangible and temporary februum, let’s also purify our inner selves with intangible and invigorating love. A love for life. A life for humanity this February and beyond…
I. smiley G. Calderon is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.