Sunday, February 28, 2010

#42 February Footnote II--Ides and Presidents

Before this arctic February passes into what looks to be a coming-in-like-a-lion Martius , one more thing:

"Well, here we are in Baaahth. Baaahth ... don't you know." My students just loved to drop their jaw to the ground in pronouncing--Englishy "ah"-wise--the city they were visiting on their study-tour of "King Arthur's Britain," an overseas-course that I taught some years ago. (I had to point out to them, however, that the Brits would have said the vowel just as we do for our sister-city Bath in North Carolina, Blackbeard's old headquarters, up until English RP/"Received Pronunciation" for it and related forms--called affectionately the "ass-words" among us professional linguinies in the know--shifted late in the 19C. Doesn't "ahsshole" sound ever so much less offensive than our version?) "King" Arthur/Arcturus--a real-life hero unadorned with myth in his day, who was more field-marshall than king--led his combined forces to their greatest victory here at Mons Badonicus (outside of town) in about 500, holding off the ultimately victorious Anglo-Saxons from the western half of Romanized Britain for another 50 years or so.

As a Romanized Celt-aristocrat, Arthur would have been "at Bath" regularly--it was probably one of his western strongholds--and especially on the Ides of Februarius. The 15th. Established during King Numa's reign and carried over into the slightly revised calendar of Julius Caesar--first Roman in Celtic Britain, incidentally--it would have been a holy day for the Commander-in-Chief. He would be celebrating one of the few highlights of a dark and dreary month, the festival of Februatio (see various last posts), in the very middle of the Month of Purification--more literally and practically the month of washing, cleaning, and ritual bathing before Spring Break and the beach. Otherwise, much like today, a most undistinguished month.

Another Commander-in-Chief, General/President George Washington (cheap trick, but etymologically righteous: Old English waesc; ultimately Proto-Indo-European *wat-; origin of all our "water-words.")--also achieved great success against the Anglo-Saxons of his day, and his birthday was just celebrated (by calendrical happenstance this year) on the Ides of February. The 15th. (Don't you just love wonderful coincidences that mean absolutely nothing.) As a matter of fact, this real-life hero, also celebrated at length in recent DM posts (q.v.), has birthdays all over February. Three of them this month, as it happens. All this and Abe Lincoln too.

First of all, the Federal Holiday is still since 1880 officially "Washington's Birthday." NOT Presidents' Day, as some states and every mattress-salesman would have it. Moreover, up until the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act (yay!) his birthday was a one-day affair on every Feb. 22nd, no matter the day of the week, though most jurisdictions had by that time (incl. the Feds) thrown in Monday anyway, if GW's nativity-anniversary came on the weekend. But up until he was 20, the young Colonel (by that time) would have given his birth date as the 11th. And he would have been right--under the "Old Style" (O.S.) Julian calendar. It took almost two centuries for the Brits and their possessions to catch up with the rest of Europe and adopt the "New Style" (N.S.) of the Gregorian. By that time eleven days had been lost to that pesky, true-length of the solar year, one day more than the original ten excised from the "Catholic" calendar (the reason the Protestant English were so dilatory) by Pope Gregory XIII.

Finally, there's one more birthday that Washington is responsible for during this Month of Purification that is February. It involves those "washed" in the blood of war. The Purple Heart. That champion precedent-setter, whom Lighthorse Harry Lee called "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," established what he dubbed the "Badge of Military Merit" during the Revolutionary War. It was to be shaped in the form of a "purple heart," said his Executive Order in 1782, to be awarded to the soldier who had "given his blood in defense of his homeland." Though it fell into disuse after the Revolution, the medal was revived, again by Executive Order, and renamed simply the Purple Heart (after Washington's apt phrase) on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of his Gregorian birth, to honor the wounded in the Great War. Thenceforth it would bear Washington's profile.

This is what my Granddaddy was given in return for a low-profile portion of his hindquarters given up at the Second Battle of the Marne.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

#41 Taking One's Temperature

Why was I feeling so blue?

Thought I had a clue:

The weather is bad,

So it must be S.A.D.

But now I know it's the F.L.U.

Be back soon.

Monday, February 8, 2010

#40 February Footnote--Taking a Bath

By way of taking a break from the more-or-less serious business of Obama's State of the Union over at the DM, here's the State of my Duck Pond (full-disclosure: a reasonable facsimile) on several occasions this January and February--and more on the way, evidently. The latter month could never be called the "cruellest" (see recent posts)--especially not in the Carolinas, where I have always fondly matched the nigh-arrival of Spring with my third son's birthday of Feb. 19th. Most years it works. The Dogwoods usually get the the signal at about that time to get a-bloomin' and flood the the lower woodland canopy with their own version of snowiness.

Not this year. But then, the only thing predictable about Global Warming is its UNpredictable effect on traditional weather patterns. On average though, it has surely been responsible for our extraordinarily warm winters on a pretty regular basis for decades now. I can recall extended periods of teen-ish temperatures and below in the late 60's and early 70's--in SOUTH Carolina. In contrast, over the last half-dozen years or so here in NORTH Carolina, our central heating was in full operation on average only about a half-dozen times during the winter months. I've kept track.

Or you can always take a hot bath. That's originally what Kalendis Februarius was all about. Maybe not the "cruellest," but it is for sure the curiousest among the named months, historically. (And the only one virtually unpronounceable as spelled, at normal speech-speed.) Well, the Romans were fair obsessed with cleanliness--something quite new in the development of Western Civilization. Public baths, and all that. Their friendly-neighborhood Barbarian Invaders were forever baffled by it, and the later Christian authorities--once the Empire was de-paganized--were offended by it. One of the first things done in post-Constantine Rome was to outlaw public bath-houses. (Second: amphitheater performances--which is exactly what happened to Shakespeare et alia and the London Stage when the Puritans took over in Cromwellian England centuries later. Too much fun for mortal men and women.) Because it smacked of pagan ritual, too much bath-time (like even once-a-week, and of course never in public) was condemned in the Christian world well into modern times, incidentally.

But the early Romans loved it, and ended up naming a whole month after their favorite pastime. As you recall from earlier posts, until the reign of Numa there were 60 or so days between the end of December and first of March--also the first of the year for the "Romulans"--which were so "unspeakable" that they simply had no name, month-wise. The Numaian regime for whatever reasons revised the solar calendar (which would be tweaked-only-slightly into it's present form by Julius Caesar and later Pope Gregory), by giving the venerable god Janus the first 31 days, thereafter also designated the first month of the year. Twenty-eight days left over. Oops ... unlucky. For some lost-to-history reason, even numbers caused mild discomfort for the Romans, and thus should be avoided whenever possible. Not possible here, because the remaining months, now including January, all had a good-luck numbers of either 29 or 31, and you couldn't very well stick a deity with an unlucky number of days.

(I know--you with calculator in hand--that still leaves seven, if you're going for a total of 365. Well, to oversimplify a bit, these seven were always held in reserve as intercalary days for special celebrations which may present themselves over the course of a given year. The festival-loving Romans invariably used them up.)

Anyway ... What to name these 28 days, a potential month's-worth, which already has not only the weather but the numbers going against it?

--It's getting late. Let's go down to the bath-house and think about it. Naked men and women rub-a-dub-dubbing together always gives me ideas.
--Wait a minute! That reminds me. We've got a huge festival that comes up during that period.
--But we can't name that "month" after a god. The numbering and all.
--No, no--it's the Februatio, the day of ritual purification, when simply everybody goes a-bath-housing.
--You mean the holiday we got from the Etruscans?
--Yeah, our word februare, "to cleanse, purify," comes from them, originally.
--We do a lot of spring-cleaning then too.
--And it rains a lot. Water, water everywhere.
--Well then, why don't we just expand the idea to cover the entire month? We'll fix Februatio at Ides (Feb. 15th), right in the middle, and sanctify the whole unlucky megilla.
--Excellent! But, remember, I thought of it first.
--Okay, but I brought up the bath-house ...