We have managed to survive January. Tomorrow is Feb. 1. Groundhog Day is the following day, Feb. 2. The month of February in Lake Geneva, more than 60 or 70 years ago, was experienced a bit differently than it is today, although some aspects of February remain the same.
The first day of February was welcomed six or seven decades ago much as it is today, because it meant that the often snowy and brutally cold month of January had come and gone. Two thirds of the winter was over, and only the shortest month of the year remained as the winter neared an end.
There was no Winterfest in those days to speed the passage of the days of February, nor had the concept of an Ice Palace crossed anyone’s mind. There was one less holiday in February in those days. Establishing a President’s Day holiday had not occurred to anyone. Nor had anyone come up with the idea of holding a Super Bowl, because the NFL did not have two conferences then and the American Football League (the predecessor of the AFC) did not exist.
There were, nonetheless, other holidays in February for people to celebrate, just as there are today. Groundhog Day was celebrated despite the fact that there were few groundhogs in Lake Geneva to see their shadow. Groundhog Day was not then a major festival in Woodstock, Illinois, 30 miles to the south, because the famous movie, “Groundhog Day,” had not yet been filmed in Woodstock, a movie that transformed Woodstock into one of the Groundhog Day capitals of the world, rivaling Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as the home of the furry rodent.
Today the holiday celebrated in Lake Geneva following Groundhog Day is perhaps the biggest holiday in February. It is the day that the Super Bowl is played. The Super Bowl is usually played on the first Sunday in February.
The Super Bowl is designated by pretentious Roman numerals, which are supposed to inform fans which Super Bowl it is (i.e. this year’s Super Bowl is Super Bowl LIII, which translated means Super Bowl 53). Super Bowls I and II were not known by pompous Roman numerals. Most fans in Wisconsin, however, know that fact because the first two Super Bowls were won by the Green Bay Packers.
The next holiday in February in the northern United States is Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12. At Central School during the 1940s and 1950s, tributes to Abraham Lincoln were piped into all of the classrooms over the loudspeakers high on the wall. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was read. Other events were held in the city celebrating Lincoln’s birthday.
Two days later on Feb. 14, the most important holiday in February was celebrated — Valentine’s Day. Valentine cards were sent through the postal mail (of course there was no Internet or e-mail then) to friends and relatives. And in the schools, Valentine cards were exchanged. Male students always hoped they would get a Valentine’s card from a secret female admirer. Valentine’s Day dances were held in the city.
Valentine’s Day was always a special day for one group of the city’s residents — its youth, because they could eat all of the candy that they could consume. During the days that preceded Valentine’s Day, the city’s youth would gaze at the brightly colored, red, heart-shaped boxes of candy on display at Frediani’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Schultz Brothers and Ben Franklin’s dime stores, and at Arnold’s and Hammersley’s drugstores, as they counted the days remaining before Valentine’s Day arrived.
On Feb. 22, eight days after Valentine’s Day, another holiday was celebrated — Washington’s Birthday. Like on Lincoln’s birthday 10 days earlier, the loudspeakers in the classrooms at Central School broadcast tributes to the first president of the United States.
Toward the end of the 20th century, the celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday were telescoped into a new federal holiday, Presidents’ Day, which was held on the third Monday of February. Many employers had pressured Congress to establish Presidents’ Day, because they did not like the idea of giving their workers a day off on both Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday.
Six days after Washington’s birthday came the last day of February, Feb. 28, a day that everyone very much looked forward to because it marked the end of the psychological winter, despite the fact that the meteorological winter would continue until March 20 or 21, and the first three weeks of March often brought severe snowstorms and frigid cold.
Every four years, however, the month of February would have 29 instead of 28 days. The 29th day of February has long been known as Leap Year’s Day. Leap Year’s Day comes every four years because the Earth takes 365 days and 6 hours to revolve around the sun. Six hours a year times four means that an additional day had to be added to the calendar, hence Leap Year’s Day, Feb. 29, was created.
Some readers might wonder why February is the shortest month of the year, why (with the exception of a Leap Year) it has only 28 days when the other months of the year have 30 or 31 days. The answer is that the Romans of antiquity tinkered with the calendar in order to honor their two most popular emperors, Julius Caesar and his nephew, Augustus Caesar. The Romans stole two days from February and gave a day each to July and August, the two months of the years that they had named after the Roman emperors Julius and Augustus Caesar. From that time on, July and August would have a robust 31 days rather than a measly 30 days. February became the loser.
During some years, there are other holidays in February, depending upon the vasilations of the meteorological calendar. The first of these is Chinese New Year, which in some years occurs in January rather than in February. In 2019, Chinese New Year begins on Tuesday, Feb. 5. Some residents of Lake Geneva will go to Su Wing’s restaurant or to Moy’s in Elkhorn or to a restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown for a meal on the day that Chinese New Year begins.
Two other important days which occur in February during some years, also depending upon the meteorological calendar, are Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. In New Orleans, Shrove Tuesday is called Mardi Gras. It is a day of carnivals, parades, and celebrations before the religious period of Lent begins on the following day, Ash Wednesday. Lent lasts until Easter. Ash Wednesday is considered a holy day by Catholics who go to church where the priest dabs their forehead with a cross of ash from the palm fronds that had adorned the previous year’s Palm Sunday and were then burnt.
As noted above, the day that everyone looks forward to in February is Feb. 28, the last day of the month (or, every four years, Feb. 29, Leap Year’s Day) because it portends that three weeks later, following the Ides of March on March 15 (the day that Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar in Rome) and St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, spring would finally arrive on March 20 or March 21.
Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.