February Fill Dyke and all that Jazz . . .

February is the second month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars. It is the shortest of the months, with only 28 days in common years and 29 days every fourth or leap year. Having only 28 days, February is the only month that can pass without having a full moon – as occurred this year (2018) when the last full moon was on January 31. February is also the third and last month of winter in the northern hemisphere, the equivalent of August, the last month of summer, in the southern hemisphere.

January and February did not exist in the old Roman calendar. The winter season was a monthless period and the year consisted of only ten months. These two months were added around 700 BC/BCE by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome (after Romulus).

The name of the month comes from either the name of the old Roman god, Februus, or from februa, which signifies the festivals of purification celebrated in Rome on February 15  (a full moon in the old Roman lunar calendar).

The Anglo Saxon names for February were Solmonath, meaning Mud Month, and sometimes Kalemonath, named after cabbage. Solmonath was the usual name – and we don’t have to look too far to see why. These photos were taken down our local lanes this week. No shortage of mud here!

A Victorian painting by Benjamin Williams Leader entitled February Fill Dyke (first exhibited in 1881) became very popular when later shown at the Royal Jubilee Exhibition. However, the painting was of a November evening after rain! (What a swizz!)  You can see the painting here.

Solmonath has sometimes also been thought by some to mean Sun Month – the month when the sun seems to be (noticeably) coming back from its winter retreat ‘down under’. That makes sense, since ‘sol’ means ‘sun’ in Latin. And, according to the Venerable Bede, February was known as Cake Month – when Anglo Saxons offered cake to their gods.

In the UK, although February can still be cold, many of us start looking forward to spring. Some parts of the country can be covered in snow, while others see little but grey skies, wind and rain. One day can be nice and sunny, and the next day it snows – as  these photos from the last couple of days show:

Garden in the sunshine, February 25:

Garden and lane in the snow, February 26:

The unpredictable nature of the month forms the basis of this rhyme, which often means little to people, even in Britain:

February fill the dyke
Be it black or white
But if it’s white
It’s better to like

So, whether the month is rainy and black/grey or white and snowy, the dykes still fill up. And what is a dyke…? Simply another old English name for a ditch. And across the countryside, farmers have dug thousands of drainage ditches over the years, Here are some photos of  a couple of dykes I took around our lanes a couple of days ago:

The birth flowers for February are the viola/violet and the primrose:

February’s birthstone is the amethyst:

Amethyst. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

The birth signs for February are Aquarius (until the 19th) and Pisces (from the 20th onwards):

In the UK there are a few special days to note, some of which are also celebrated elsewhere in the world. As I’ve written posts about some of them in past years, I won’t repeat them here.The two main ones are Shrove Tuesday, commonly known as Pancake Day  and celebrated as Mardi Gras in some countries.

and Saint Valentines Day.

To finish, here are just a few  of the many famous historic events that took place in February:

  1. February 7, 1964. The Beatles first visit to the USA:

2. February 8, 1587.  Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I of England:

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. Artist: Nicholas Hilliard c 1578. Public Domain.

3. February 12, 1809. President Abraham Lincoln of the U.S.A was born:

Abraham Lincoln. Artist: Alexander Gardner, 1821-1882. Author: Moses Parker Rice copyrighted the portrait in the late 19th century. Public Domain

4. February 21, 1804. British engineer, Richard Trevithick, demonstrated the first steam engine on wheels

Portrait of Richard Trevithick. 1816. Author: John Linnell 1792-1882. Public Domain

5. February 23, 1863. Lake Victoria in Africa was declared to be the source of the Nile by British explorers John Speke and JA Grant:

Routes taken by different explorers around Lake Victoria. Image produced by Richard G. Clegg using freely available map data and software. Creative Commons

One more day to go and it will be March. Let’s hope the sun finds its way back soon!

What Is Pancake Day All About?

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This evening I cooked enough pancakes to sink a battleship. Everyone in our family loves the things, and we had several of our offspring round to join us (and save themselves the hassle of making and cooking them!) Naturally, being just ‘Mum’, I’ve got hours of spare time to cater for everyone! I wish!

Well, now I’ve just decided to write about where and when this tradition of stuffing ourselves stupid with pancakes started. So here’s the gist of it:

Shrove Tuesday – or Pancake Day – is exactly 47 days before Easter Sunday. It is called a moveable feast because it’s determined by the cycles of the moon. The date can be anywhere between February 3rd and March 9th and falls immediately before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.

The word ‘shrove’ is derived from the English word, shrive – which means gaining absolution (forgiveness) for any sins. Christians attended Confession for this, followed by a penance (a type of forfeit or punishment). So on Shrove Tuesday, Christians were ‘shriven’ before the 40 days of fasting during Lent – the days leading up to Easter, the most important Christian festival.

The tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday has led to the day generally being referred to as ‘Pancake Day’ in the U.K., Ireland, Australia and Canada. This name is derived from the tradition of eating up all the rich foods (or ‘fats’) in the house before Lent. It would also provide a day of merriment and feasting before the days of austerity ahead. Outside of those countries, Catholic and Protestant countries traditionally call the day ‘Fat Tuesday’ – or ‘Mardi Gras.’

Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. Krewe of Kosmic Revelers on Frenchmam St. 2009. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans
Mardi Gras Day in New Orleans. Krewe of Kosmic Revelers on Frenchmam St. 2009. Author: Infrogmation of New Orleans
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Margi Gras in Marseille. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Say-Mars Say-Yeah

In England, many towns once held traditional Shrove Tuesday ‘mob’ football games as part of the community celebrations, some dating back to the 12th Century. Today, only a few towns continue this tradition, which mostly died out in the 19th Century after the 1835 Highways Act was passed, banning football on public highways.

The tradition of ‘pancake races’ is said to have originated in 1445, when a housewife was so busy making pancakes she forgot the time for the usual 11 o’ clock church service. Only the ringing of the church bells reminded her and she raced to the church, still carrying her frying pan – containing a pancake.

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Pancake Races at Olney in Buckinghamshire. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Lestalorm

Pancake races are still quite common in the UK, especially in England. Contestants race through the streets with their frying pans, tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan while running. The most famous pancake race is at Olney in Buckinghamshire, and dates back to 1445. The contestants, traditionally women, race over a 415 yard course with their frying pans. Rules stipulate that they must must toss their pancakes at both the start and the finish, and wear an apron and scarf. Traditionally, when men want to take part, they must dress up as a housewife (usually an apron and a bandanna). The race is followed by a church service.

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Preparing for Pancake Day in Olney. Wikimedia Commons. Attribution: Michael Trelove

Pancakes are simple to make and cook (unless you have a family the size of mine and they all want half a dozen each! Not small ones, either!) The recipe is a basic batter, which can be found on many websites and in recipe book, so I won’t elaborate here. In Britain, lemon juice and sugar is a favourite topping, but there are lots of different sweet fillings that people choose – golden syrup, maple syrup and various jams, to name just a few.  Naturally, I’m expected to provide every possible choice. My husband prefers orange juice  to lemon, for a start.

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Pancake with orange juice and sugar
Pancakes with raspberry filling
Pancakes with raspberry filling

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