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Our Months and Days – the origins of their names

October 3, 2012


Although I tend not to subscribe to the view that the English have the Romans to thank for everything that smacks of early civilisation, they are the ones to thank for our way of working out the days of the year. Originally they calculated that a year should generally have 355 days in it, but that to average out occasional anomalies (things that didn’t fit) there should be an additional month of 22 or 23 days every two years. This system worked well for a time, but because Rome operated an expansionist policy of trying to extend its Empire and had more than its fair share of internal power struggles, fighting and instability the ordering of the calendar got overlooked for a while. As a result, by the year 46BCE the calendar was in confusion as the extra days had not been computed since 58BCE which was 12 years previously.

Julius Caesar decided it was time to sort things out. With the backing of the Senate it was declared that a year should have 365 days to it, but that every fourth year should have one extra day.  Even now, in the 21st century, we operate this system with the extra day on February 29th (our shortest month) forming our leap year. Obviously all these calends, as the Romans called their months, needed names. Julius Caesar kept some of the names already used as they were appropriate, but he also made a few changes which leave us today with some oddities.

*JANUARIUS Named after Janus, the two-headed god who looked after new beginnings by looking both forwards and backwards to the lessons of the past.

*FEBRUARIUS This comes from a Latin (the language of the Romans) word meaning ‘to cleanse ceremonially’. Perhaps this is the origin of spring cleaning, to welcome in the year’s new growth?

*MARTIALIS The third month is named for Mars, the god of war, who gave the Romans their victories over other lands (though their superior weapons and understanding of strategy and warfare helped, too).

*APRILIS This name also comes from a  Latin word, this one meaning the opening of flowers. This is particularly appropriate as this month is often seen as the true start of Spring after the blustery weather so common in March.

*MAIUS Named for the goddess Maia who was responsible for bringing fine weather.

*JUNIUS The sixth month is named for the goddess Juno who was the wife of Jupiter and patron goddess of women

*JULIUS There is nothing like immortality, so this month was changed from its original name of Quintilis and renamed in honour of the Emperor responsible for the new calendar – Julius Caesar himself.

*AUGUSTUS Originally this was called Sextus – the sixth month. Now that it had become the eighth month the name was no longer appropriate, so it was renamed Augustus after Caesar’s nephew who became the first official Emperor of Rome in 27BCE.




*DECEMBER It would seem that inspiration for worthy names was running a bit thin by the ninth month of the year, so the remaining months were simply left with their original names. The Latin numbers 1-10 are  listed below, but notice the names were not changed to reflect the fact that there were now 12 months in each year.

Uno (1)                                    Sex(6)

Duo(2)                                    Sept(7)

Tres(3)                                   Octo(8)

Quattor(4)                            Novem(9)

Quinque(5)                          Decem(10)



The English language names for the days of the week are an entirely different matter. These owe very little to the Romans, as we have the Saxons to thank for most of them. Once the Roman Empire started to crumble in the last quarter of the fourth century AD the Roman legions left the countries they had been occupying and retreated to Rome in order to defend it from the tribes threatening to overrun their homeland. This left England fragmented and open to hostile invasion form bands of both Saxons and Vikings who were looking to expand. Many of the Saxon gods were held in common with those of the Vikings, though their names varied a bit. Our words for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all named in honour of their gods.

*TUESDAY This is in honour of Tiw (Tiw’s day). Tiw was the god of war who gave victory over the Britons.

*WEDNESDAY Named for Wodin, or Odin, the one eyed chief of the gods who ruled the Sun and the sky, and without whose blessing the crops would fail.

*THURSDAY Thors day. Thor was the mighty blacksmith or weapon maker of the gods. He made the thunder and lightning, and used his mighty hammer to defeat his enemies. Again, the Saxon and Viking warriors  believed he had helped them to defeat the people living in England which allowed them to settle here.

*FRIDAY This day was named for either for Freya,  the goddess of love, or for Frigg, a powerful goddess and wife of Odin. Opinion is divided on the subject.

This leaves us with Monday, Saturday and Sunday. Here there  is some Roman input.

*SUNDAY Traditionally this was seen as the first day of the week and was named Dies Solis, or the sun’s day. Once Christianity became established it was known as the Lord’s day.

*MONDAY Originally from the Anglo Saxon Monandaeg, it was inevitable that if one day was in honour of the Sun, that the next should be in honour of the moon – the other source of light on the planet.

*SATURDAY The Romans influenced this day, originally named in honour of their god Saturn (Dies Saturni)


Some of the times of year that we still consider special in the 21st century have their origins in celebrations held far in the past. The people who lived in England before the Romans conquered it had four main festivals which marked crucial points of the year and celebrated the changing of the seasons.

*IMBOLC The start of February. This  marked the beginning of the lambing season and the coming of new life after the bleakness of the winter months. Everyone would become very busy. As fresh milk became available after the winter shortages it meant that both butter and cheese could be made again.

*BELTANE The start of May. This celebration marked the start of Summer, when cattle that had been over wintered in shelter could again be driven out to graze in the pastures. Before they did so they were driven between huge bonfires which were thought to protect the animals from illness and evil spirits. However, there was also a practical purpose, as the intense smoke and heat would have helped to kill off parasites which the animals may have acquired while living in close confinement. (Not that they understood this much later reasoning at the time, as far as we know).

*LUGHNASAD During August, this feast celebrated the ripening harvest which would see everyone through the coming winter months and allowed them to enjoy the abundance of food naturally available during the Summer months.

*SAMHAIN Pronounced sow-een, this festival took place on the first of November. It was the most important festival of the year as it marked the change to the short cold days of winter when the sun had left the earth. Animals were brought back from fields and pastures to be close to homes while they needed feeding and protection from the wolves that would come closer whilst food was in short supply. Weaker and older animals that might not have the strength to survive the hard months ahead would be slaughtered and their meat either salted or dried for use in the winter month, or shared out to feast on whilst fresh. It was thought, too, that this marked the turn to the New
Year. Just as a seed is quiet in the soil while it makes roots before top shoots, so it was thought the year was quiet before it  blossomed forth again in the Spring. Divisions
between the past and present were thought to be thin at this time – a tradition still observed in the spooky customs that accompany Hallowe’en celebrations today.

The Saxons and Vikings have also left us with a legacy of celebrations which have been absorbed into holidays we still celebrate today:

*EOSTRE This is the name given to the Saxon and Viking goddess of the Spring. She has given her name to the continuing Christian celebration of Easter which remembers Jesus rising from the dead after crucifixion. Eostre celebrated the rebirth of a new year, and that is still remembered in the exchanging of eggs.

*YULE The Vikings believed that the Sun was a giant fiery wheel which was constantly rolling round the heavens. As the shortest day of the year approached they would light huge bonfires to encourage it to turn and roll back to them. They would also find the largest log they could move and keep it alight throughout their celebration and
midwinter feast. The yule log, now most often made of chocolate, still survives as an aspect of Christmas celebrations.

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