February is that month where we get to send sweet nothings to the objects of our affection – because on the 14th February it’s Valentine’s Day – a holiday that is now celebrated around the world and is what we traditionally think of as a time to show our love and affection to those closest to us by sending cards, gifts and flowers. Or maybe, we’re hoping that we can win the heart of someone that’s caught our eye by sending them a mysteriously anonymous card to entice them our way? Love it (pun intended!) or loathe it, Valentines Day is here to stay; but has it always been that way?
The earliest beginnings of Valentine’s Day originated in Roman times in a festival called Lupercalia, which was held in mid-February. This was a celebration of the long awaited coming of Spring and of fertility rites. Women would pop their names into an urn and the men would take pot luck (!) and draw out a name. The couple then spent the coming year together and many of these pairings resulted in marriage – but if it didn’t work out, I guess it was back in the pot again next year!
The Christian church frowned upon this practice and decided to adopt the festival and name if after Saint Valentine, who was the patron saint of love (as well as epilepsy, fainting, travelling, bee keeping and even (rather topically) plague)!
Incidentally, Saint Valentine is an interesting chap (or rather chaps as there were many Saint Valentines in the church). (As an aside – Valens means worthy, strong and powerful). The Saint Valentine that is believed to be associated with the 14th February celebration was a priest / bishop who was martyred by Roman Emperor Claudius II in 270 CE. Legend says that he wrote a letter to his sweetheart (the jailor’s daughter) and signed it ‘From Your Valentine’. He wasn’t compliant with the Emperors orders and was said to have secretly married many couples to allow the husbands to avoid being sent to war.
Poor Saint Valentine has been well scattered, with his skull being kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Rome and other parts of his skeleton being kept in the Czech Republic, England, Ireland, Scotland and France – it seems everyone wants a piece of him!
So now we know how the day came to be called Valentine’s Day – but how about the declarations of love famously proffered on this day? Well, that didn’t begin until 1375, when Chaucer wrote a poem, in which he declared the day to be one in which ‘every fool comes to find a mate’ (maybe he needed to work on his romantic lines there!) As his poem became famous, so too did his association of romance with Valentine’s Day.
The oldest Valentines greeting is a poem from 1415 and was written by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife, when he’d been imprisoned in the Tower of London, following the battle of Agincourt. After that, Henry V got in on the act and hired a poet, John Lydgate, to write him a Valentine’s Day Poem to the object of his desire, Catherine of Valois.
Momentum gathered pace and notes of love and affection were sent – often to friends and those held dear, as well as the traditional lovers’ troths. As printing methods improved, the first Valentine’s cards appeared and Esther Howland began selling these around 1840 in the USA. Along came the Victorians, who were hopeless romantics and enjoyed sending cards anonymously (believing it was bad luck to put your name on them!) Now Valentine’s Day cards are big business, with an average of 145 million being sold each year (second only to Christmas).
As well as being a boom time for card sellers, it’s a busy day for florists too and it was apparently the UK that began the tradition of sending roses as a token of love – roses being the flower of Venus, the goddess of love – ah!
Another association with Saint Valentine is of course Cupid. We think of Cupid as a little cherub, firing off his arrows into the hearts of would-be lovers; but he didn’t start out that way. Cupid was a Roman god, who the Roman’s stole (sorry I mean adopted!) from the Greeks, who called their god of love, Eros. Eros was portrayed as a handsome immortal, who fired arrows of gold to illicit love and arrows of lead to illicit aversion. It was only in Hellenistic times that he morphed into the cherubic figure we recognise today.
As mentioned, Valentines Day is celebrated around the world, with some interesting traditions, including Japanese ladies being the ones to buy the chocolates for the men (what!) and the men then returning the favour on 14th March (phew!). Meanwhile, in Estonia, singletons take a ride on the Love Bus in the hope of meeting a partner.
It would seem that there’s a bit more to Valentine’s Day than that annoying array of cards, balloons, flowers and tacky gifts that adorn the supermarket entrances in early February. It’s a day when we can all express our love to those dearest to us, which is especially important during these current times.
Whatever you think of Valentine’s Day, let’s all take the opportunity to spread a little love this year. Happy Valentine’s Day!