Why does February have 28 days?

It is common knowledge that February is the shortest month of the calendar year. And you must have wondered, at least a few times, about the story behind it. The history surrounding this is a little confusing as there are numerous stories and theories explaining it. But it all dates back to the Roman period.

The calendar we use currently is the Gregorian calendar, which is a refinement to the Julian calendar, which was in turn a reform of the Roman calendar. To begin with, the Roman calendar, devised by the founder and first King of Rome, Romulus, only had 10 months, starting from March 1st.

The Calendar of Romulus had the following months…

    • Martius (31 days)
    • Aprilis (30 days)
    • Maius (31 days)
    • Iunius (30 days)
    • Quintilis (31 days)
    • Sextilis (30 days)
    • September (30 days)
    • October (31 days)
    • November (30 days)
    • December (30 days)

The calendar year thus had 304 days, with winter commencing after December and ending before March. January and February did not even exist then, because Romans considered winter as monthless period. However, King Numa Pompilius felt that this needed to be fixed. He changed this tradition and prefixed those two months to the previous 10 months in 713 BC. He added the previously unallocated 51 winter days to the year, making the year 355 days long. Romans considered even numbers to be unlucky, so Numa took one day each from the six months with 30 days. But still one month had to be given even number of days so that it added up. January was given 29 days, while February was given the unlucky number of 28 days. This was because it was the month of purification and also due to unpleasant winter. No wonder it was preferred to be short.

The resulting calendar was like this…

    • Ianuarius (29 days)
    • Februarius (28 days)
    • Martius (31 days)
    • Aprilius (29 days)
    • Maius (31 days)
    • Iunius (29 days)
    • Quintilis (31 days)
    • Sextilis (29 days)
    • September (29 days)
    • October (31 days)
    • November (29 days)
    • December (29 days)

As years passed, the seasons and months did not match up properly. A 27-day leap month called Mercedonius was occasionally inserted by the Romans to rectify the situation and to align it with the solar year. This inconsistency caused much chaos and priests abused the power to their advantage.

Julius Caesar further reformed the calendar in 46 BC and added a few more days to make the year 365 days long. He left February as is, because he felt that 28 days were enough for purification. And in a leap year, a day was added to February. Mark Antony renamed Quintilis as Iunius in honour of Caesar in 44 BC. Further, Sextilis was renamed Augustus in 8 BC.

According to some stories, Caesar wanted a month after his name and created July with 31 days by pulling 1 day out of February. And when Augustus became emperor, he named August after him, and made it a 31-day month by taking away a day from February. But this is considered as a myth and historians support that February had 28 days since the time of King Numa, as elucidated above.

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