The Festivals of Februarius

by forumholitorium

Ash Wednesday. I remember going to mass, the priest’s thumb smudging my forehead with grey. “…unto dust you shall return,” he droned over and over. I have no strong memories of how I felt about this ritual at the beginning of Lent. What was more salient was the feast of St. Blaise on February 3, when my class trudged through the cold from the school building past the convent to the church. It was time to get our throats blessed. That seemed much more sensible – after all, whenever I got sick, it was something throat-related. Though I can’t say that the crossing of the candles in front of my throat ever helped much. To this day, when I get sick, it always involves a malady of the respiratory tract.

February has been a month of celebrations for a long time. Februarius was the last month of the year in the Roman calendar. Starting on February 13, the nine-day Parentalia festival honored a family’s ancestors. Thoughts turned to those deceased at the same time that winter gave way to spring, death leading to rebirth. February 15 was the Roman holiday Februa devoted to purification. It was time to wash, clean, and prepare for spring and the new year.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Chinese just welcomed in the Year of the Snake on Sunday, the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is also customary to remember ancestors that have died. Preparations for the new year involve cleaning your house and sweeping out any bad luck from the previous year.

Yesterday was the last day of Fasching, or Carnival. Normally there is a big parade through the center of town, but much to my surprise it was called off this year due to the World Ski Championships. I imagine there must have been a lot of disappointed little kids since this is kind of the Austrian equivalent of Halloween, when (not just) children dress up and party. Well, I’m sure they dressed up and partied anyways, just without the highlight of the parade. In fact, the dressing up and partying has been going on in Austria since November 11 at 11:11 A.M., when Fasching officially started. The height of the ball season – including the famous Opernball at the Vienna State Opera last Thursday – coincides with Fasching.

The last day of Carnival is called Mardi Gras in the Francophone world and parts of the Americas. I remember making crepes in French class in high school, learning to hold a coin in one hand for good luck while flipping the crepe in the other. I often make crepes for Fat Tuesday, but yesterday a steaming bowl of chickpea, Swiss chard, and ditalini soup was more inviting.

So here we are on the first day of Lent. Though it is supposed to be a dreary time of renunciation and penance and mortification, at some point I started to see Lent as a time where you can start over again, break a bad habit, change your life for the better, or simply experiment and do something new. Lent provides a framework for a new beginning. Kind of like a second stab at a New Year’s resolution. That said, I won’t be giving anything up for Lent this year because I have already given up alcohol and caffeine for 2013. Just to see if I can. Well, for health reasons too.

Though I have been thinking about deceased ancestors (the whole discussion surrounding Ratzinger’s resignation brings me back to the death of my grandma several days after the death of Pope John Paul II), my focus has been more on the cleaning and purification aspects of February festivals. For the past month, I have been sorting, decluttering, and organizing absolutely everything in my possession. Friday and Saturday, for example, I tackled my collection of recipes. I tossed a bunch and then put the ones I still want to try in a separate folder. I organized them by the season in which the ingredients can be sourced locally. Finally, I made a list so I can see quickly what recipes are in the folder. If I haven’t tried a recipe within one year, I will throw it away next February. Last night’s soup was the result of this fit of organization. The next step: going through all the recipes I have saved on my computer.

Hope you too get bit by the organization bug and enjoy preparing for the coming explosion of spring!