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A Yankee Notebook

January 5, 2015


MONTPELIER – The switch from the old year to the new was especially confusing this past week. With New Years Eve occurring on Wednesday, it was a week of two Fridays and two Saturdays, with a change of calendars thrown in to make it more of a challenge. Twice I showed up at appointments, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on the wrong days – even in the wrong year. Taking down the Christmas tree today, on Twelfth Night, helped to establish that this is indeed January. A quick check of The Old Farmer’s Almanac reveals that we’re enjoying nine more minutes of daylight than we had on the solstice a couple of weeks ago.

“Here we go,” I said, as we plucked the bulbs from the little fir tree in the parlor. “January, the coldest month of the year, coming up.” The observation added little cheer to the situation.

“Where’d the name January come from?” asked Mother. “Anything to do with the cold?”

“Nope. Comes from Janus, the two-faced Roman god of comings and goings and doors and gates. Roman armies marched out under arches with him on them, and then home again with him still watching. You put him in a doorway, you always meet him face to face, no matter which way you’re going. So in January he’s looking back on the old year and forward to the new.”

Nobody, I’ve found the hard way, likes a smarty-pants. I’m not sure she even heard my answer before she was already forming her next question: “So where’s February come from?”

Well, she had me there, and without a smart phone, I couldn’t answer till I retreated to my desk. I googled “Origin names of months,” and came up instantly with the whole lot – what Ebenezer Scrooge calls “a full dozen of months presented dead against you.”

It turns out they’re all Roman names – which, when you think about it, makes sense. Rome ruled an empire connected by then-up-to-date communications, and needed to generate and maintain all kinds of records. (Remember the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed? That was the fiat that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.) That meant naming things and keeping track of when things happened. The same thing occurred in the United States in the 19th century, when train travel required the establishment of standard time. Imagine the chaos of trains running between towns that had no need or means of keeping time.

February’s kind of an interesting name. It comes from the Latin “februum,” or cleansing. The history of the various calendars leading up to the 1582 Gregorian calendar that most of the world uses now is really complicated; but at one time Februalia was the last month of the Roman year. Much as Lent now follows the celebration of Mardi Gras – ”Fat Tuesday” – its purported purification and atonement followed the festival of Saturnalia, when few holds were barred. The shortest month, it’s always been used to correct the “creep” of the calendar vis-à-vis the sun.

March is much less complicated. Though about as far north as Chicago, Rome is quite a bit warmer, and March usually marked the beginning of the new year’s military campaigns. The god in charge of that activity was Mars, the God of War. The name was a nod to him and an implicit prayer for his divine assistance in the year’s campaigns.

There’s some uncertainty among historian-scholars about the origin of April, or Aprilis. At least the Romans (who ought to have known) thought it came from the Latin word aperio, meaning to open, as a bud in the spring sun. A celebration of Venus, Veneralia (sounds like something you wouldn’t want to catch), was held on the first of Aprilis, now our April Fools’ Day.

The goddess Maia was in charge of growing plants, so historians think the month of May is named for her. It’s also apparently the month that the old folks were honored (a great idea!); they’re referred to in Latin as maioris, another possible derivation

June belongs to Juno, the goddess of women and marriage. This is probably the reason we’ve long recognized June as the month of brides. Juno was the wife of Jupiter, the gnarly king of the gods, and by all accounts was a fearsome person herself, and nobody to be trifled with.

July was named in honor of Julius Caesar, the patron of the Julian calendar, which was a huge improvement over the misty imprecision that had gone before it, and because of the influence of Rome, the accepted calendar for over 1500 years, when it was finally tweaked by Pope Gregory.

August, of course, is named for Caesar’s grandnephew, Augustus, the first emperor of Rome during a golden age of literature and political hegemony. Given the amount of intrigue and danger that surrounded him, it’s appropriate that more than a month should be named after him; so he’s also remembered in two Augustan ages: in Rome in his day and another in 18th-century England.

September through December make it seem that the month-namers ran out of heroes, gods, occasions, or inspiration. They’re simply the numbers seven through ten, their place in the ten-month calendar of their time. Pretty boring. So I’m delighted that it’s January, and I’m going to look up at only one of Janus’ faces as I march by the opening into the new year – fearless, hopeful, and – once I get the Christmas tree sap off my fingers – composed, as well.

Photo by Willem lange