In ancient Rome, before our modern calendar became what it is today, the year began in March, the month named for the war god Mars. Ten months of the year were counted up until December, which held the winter solstice, and what we now call January and February were unnamed, a dead zone in the year.
But the Romans had a month-long festival called Februalia in the weeks before their new year began to atone for their wrongs, cleanse their spirits, and prepare for the year to come. This time was named after the god Februus, who was a god of the dead.
In a culture and era that was so focused on war, much of the year was dedicated to fighting and winning land from other people. Februalia was a yearly pause to honor the dead and atone for the wrongs that were a result of such a violent society.
Honoring Death, Loss, and the Cost of War
In many cultures and times when death was more present and obvious, there were more opportunities throughout the year to honor losses and remember the gods of the mysterious underworld. We don’t often have opportunities to consider the dead in modern society, except perhaps during occasional funerals or small memorial ceremonies.
We may not be quite as warlike as the Romans were, but there are still certainly wars happening to people all over the world, and we all inevitably experience death and loss in our personal lives. Februalia was an entire month to honor and acknowledge the realities of death, loss, and the cost of war.
The Cleansing Power of Fire
Februalia acted as a sort of ancient version of spring cleaning. The first of February is a cross-quarter day, marking the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, celebrated as Imbolc for the ancient Celts and many modern pagans. This is when many parts of the Northern Hemisphere begin to feel the return of the light. We gain a little energy and start to feel we can shake off some of the heaviness of the winter season.
Imbolc is the feast day of the goddess Brigid, who is a fire goddess representing fertility and new hope. As Februalia evolved, it became associated with the later goddess Vesta, a hearth goddess similar to Brigid in her association with sacred fire.
Fire is cleansing and purifying and has a very old connection with funeral rites. Early versions of cremation were all about purifying the body and the soul to return it to wherever souls come from. Februalia is a time to cleanse and clear our souls, let go of old wrongs, atone for our mistakes, and try to do better in the new year. As the sun and light slowly return, we have a chance to start fresh all over again.
A Time for Resolutions
Most of us make New Year’s resolutions on January 1st, and while January is an excellent time for more sleeping, rest, meditation, and reflection, it’s not a good time for action. In February, especially later in the month, the light has shifted in such a way that our bodies become more willing and able to make changes and put new energy into our endeavors.
The Lunar New Year, celebrated in China, Thailand, Tibet, Korea, and many other places around the world, usually lands in February, a much more reasonable time for making changes. Lunar New Year traditions include spending a week cleaning and purifying the home and the body in preparation for the new year. Here as well, there is a natural tendency to want to clear out the energy of the old year and make space for the newness of spring.
How to Honor Februalia
There are plenty of ways to honor the cleansing and purifying energies of this time of year. If you’d like to honor Februalia for yourself, here are some ways you can do it:
Light a candle or make a bonfire and spend some time in reflection. Consider your losses or grief and pay homage to anyone who has passed away within the past year or so.
Be still with your candle or bonfire and consider atonement. What do you regret this year? What would you like to do better next time? Make your apologies into the fire.
Some ancient peoples would honor this time of year by leaping over small fires, symbolizing the transition from one year to the next. You could do a smaller (safer) version of this by quickly passing your hand over a candle flame, focusing on purifying yourself.
Honor your ancestors and all those who are living in the “underworld” presided over by Februus. Write them letters or communicate with them through prayer. Thank them especially for what you learned from them.
Bathe in a ritualistic way, setting up a special bath to soak in. Imagine yourself letting go of your losses and mistakes from the past year.
Do some spring cleaning: Get rid of things in your closet that you no longer need.
Clean the house, your clothes, your body, your altar, or whatever else could use some refreshing.
Celebrate a similar pagan holiday, Imbolc, with this potent fire ritual.