Eat Your Heart Out

31st January 2009

Saint Valentine’s Day through the ages… Jill Glenn looks at the origins of our modern celebrations.

My favourite encyclopaedia (eight volumes, published by Harmsworth, dated 1903) reports that the custom of observing Saint Valentine’s Day has ‘fallen into disuse’… one hundred years on, nothing could be further from the truth, although it has to be said that some of the quirkier traditions have fallen by the wayside. (We should probably be grateful for this, of which more later…)

Valentine’s Day as we now recognise it has its roots in the development of the greetings card industry in the nineteenth century, although the custom of exchanging gifts and tokens goes back way beyond that. The origins of the festival are a complex mixture of pagan ritual and early Christian martyrdom. There were at least two Valentines who were executed and later canonised. Both were priests. One fell foul of the Roman Emperor Claudius II, by continuing to conduct wedding ceremonies in defiance of imperial edicts. Claudius was at war at the time, and thought his men less willing to fight if they were married (seems reasonable). The second refused to pray to Roman gods; was thrown into gaol; composed loving messages to his sweetheart and was killed on 14 February AD271, apparently leaving a last love note scrawled on the walls of his cell signed ‘Your Valentine’. Conflating the two, each with a romantic connection, has created one master-saint, whose influence is still felt down the centuries.

Pope Gelasius, in AD496, designated 14 February as Saint Valentine’s Day, not only to honour the early Christian heroes, but also with the secondary motive of obliterating the Roman festivals of Pan and Juno, taking place on this date. These were celebrated with ritual games and dances, with each man selecting a woman to be his partner throughout. Clearly Saint Valentine’s Day assumed rather than eradicated these romantic habits.

By the Middle Ages, it was popularly believed that 14 February was the day that birds began their springtime mating. This may be the origin of the superstition that the first bird seen by a young woman on Saint Valentine’s Day would determine the type of man she would marry: if it was a robin she would wed a sailor, for example; if it was a sparrow meant a poor man and a goldfinch a rich one. Be careful where you look this year. Sight of a woodpecker means no marriage at all.

During the early 1700s, Charles II of Sweden brought the Persian art known as the ‘language of flowers’ to Europe. This permitted the coded exchange of romantic secrets, making it possible to conduct an entire conversation via a bouquet of flowers – hardly clandestine, in reality, given that anyone with the appropriate floral dictionary could decode the messages. The daisy signified innocence, the forget-me-not betokened true love and constancy, the fuchsia stood for elegance. The more popular the flower, the more traditions and meaning were associated with it, and so the red rose, believed to be the favoured flower of Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, became the universally accepted symbol of romantic love. The custom of giving red roses on Valentine's Day blossomed. Literally.

This was just one way for young men and women to show interest in each other. Another was for eligible bachelors and spinsters to put their names in a bowl; the name drawn out had to be worn on the sleeve for a week for all to see… a likely origin of the phrase ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’, and, given the manner in which it threw people together, possibly an early example of a blind date.

If you’re looking for love, and internet dating or e-cards (the twenty-first century’s take on Valentine’s Day) just don’t do it for you, then you could always revert to other early customs… sewing bay leaves to your pillow, to help you dream of your future Mr Right, or gathering together a midnight procession of chanting women in the hope of luring potential suitors sleepily from their beds. They might think you’re mad, but at least they’ll notice you. Alternatively, post yourself a card, buy yourself some flowers and rejoice in not being beholden. The choice is yours…

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