Saturday, January 29, 2000

The year-I

THE names of the months of a year have a colourful story to relate. While every history may not be the perfect truth, together they give an effective insight into the way people looked at time and its passage in the past.

January, for instance, is named after the Roman god Janus and Janus was always represented with two faces, one that gazed at the past and one that looked to the future. In the light of this, when the clock strikes twelve on December 31, ringing out the old and ringing in the new assumes fresh significance since Janus-like, we too can look both ways! Janus also presided over the beginning of things, being the patron of births and thus of the first month of the year. He was also the tutelar deity of doors and gates, thus the word janitor can be traced to Janus.

In ancient Rome, in the middle of the month of February, a festival was celebrated which included a religious ceremony. For this ceremony, two youths were selected to play the leading role. Goats were sacrificed and thongs or februa, instruments of purification were cut from their hides . The two young men would run around the city and give curative slaps with these thongs to all the barren women. It was believed that the magic power of the thongs came from Juno whose epithet as the goddess of fertility was Februaria and this gave the month its name.

  Before the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman New Year began with the month of March. This was not only the beginning of the year but was the season for the waging of war, the season being spring and the climate temperate. So, the month was dedicated to Mars, the god of war and named after him, too. The Roman for April was Aprilis, based on the Latin aperio which means open. The opening spring buds of the month named it so.

The tale of April Fool’s Day spans a few centuries. The custom took birth in France when in 1564, the New Year was shifted from March 25 to January 1. People had always been exchanging gifts on New Year’s Day which often fell in holy week; so the church would postpone celebrations until April 1. But when the New Year’s Day was shifted to January 1, people in France paid mock visits to their friends on April 1 in order to befool them. Since old habits are hard to break, many a person was made an April Fool!

May takes its name from the Latin Maius which comes from Maia who was the mother of the god Hermes. Hermes being the god of thieves and also the conductor of souls to the lower world; the festival of the unhappy dead falling in the month of May; the feast of the goddess of chastity falling in the month of May were reason enough for the Romans to consider the month unlucky for marriage. So, the Indians are not alone in their prejudice against marriage at certain times of the year!


The Hindi word sneh, meaning love and affection, has a very literal history in Sanskrit. The original sneha in Sanskrit was used as an adjective to denote the trait of stickiness or adhesiveness. When a person loves another, the heart is attached to or stuck on, as in Hindi lagaav ho gaya.

— Deepti

This feature was published on January 22, 1999