Many years ago I spent Valentine’s Day reading not about love, but about death. As I researched the history of Victorian cemeteries I was saddened, but not surprised, to find the high rate of infant mortality, mother’s dying in childbirth and men killed in wars. What struck me though was the small, yet significant number of couples who died within days of each other, seemingly of broken hearts. What was even stranger is that they often left behind their children to follow their loved ones into the next realm. It was then that I realised the significance of the day and decided to let my thoughts flow on to Valentine’s Day and the meaning of love.
Valentine’s or Saint Valentine’s Day is celebrated in many parts of the Western world on February the 14th. It is a day for lovers to express their feelings by giving cards and gifts to each other. Hand written or printed cards, fresh flowers, red roses, chocolates, teddy bears and jewellery are traditional Valentine gifts. Romantic dinners, a night at the movies or an overnight stay in a hotel are popular ways of celebrating. Cupid, the baby God of Romantic Love, is the dominant image.
Increasingly however, Valentine tokens can be given to express non-romantic love such as the love between work colleagues, parents and children and friends. Pet lovers are also joining in the fun, and it is a testament to the popularity of this day that pet owners are warned not to give their pets traditional gifts such as chocolate and flowers as they may be toxic to certain animals. Instead, fancy clothes or a day at a spa are suggested gift ideas.
So who is the mysterious Saint Valentine, and how did these rituals begin?
As there are numerous Christian martyrs named Valentine, most of whom are not linked to romantic tales, it is difficult to assert who the real Saint Valentine is. The reason why the mystery Saint Valentine is associated with romance is also difficult to establish, but there are two main Valentine stories that may shed a light on Valentine’s Day rituals.
The first story speaks of a Roman priest named Valentine who married couples in secret. Some say the couples Valentine married were Christian and such unions were forbidden at that time in ancient Rome. Others say that Valentine wed couples after marriage was outlawed by an ancient Roman leader who believed that single men made better soldiers.
The second story speaks of a Valentine who was a prisoner in ancient Rome. Valentine fell in love with a young woman, possibly the daughter of his jailer. Before he was executed he wrote her a love letter signed “from your Valentine” thus penning the first Valentine note. The date of February 14 is said to be the day on which the legendary Valentine of both stories died or was buried.
But before Saint Valentine, February 14 and 15 were the dates of two popular Roman Pagan festivals that celebrated love and fertility. The Juno Februata was celebrated on February 14 in honour of Juno, the Goddess of fertility and marriage. It was famous for its “lover’s lottery” in which young women would place their names in a cauldron to be picked by the male that they would partner for the duration of the festival or for the year. The Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, was celebrated on February 15. After sacrificing a goat and donning its skin, the men of the village would hit the women with strips of skin to encourage fertility. Both these festivals point to a Pagan foundation beneath the Christian celebration.
Pagan influences in Valentine’s Day are also obvious in the rituals and superstitions that surround this day. Special significance is placed on the types of bird an unmarried woman first sees on this day. A robin indicates a marriage to a sailor, a sparrow to a poor man while a goldfinch predicts marriage to a rich man. A dove offers happiness and a kind hearted man, whilst spotting an owl means the woman will be a spinster. An interesting tradition involves writing the names of young ladies on slips of paper and placing them in a bowl. The eligible bachelor wears the name of the girl he has drawn on his sleeve for a week. This harkens back to the Juno Februata and is believed to have led to the saying “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve”.
Interestingly, some Valentine’s rituals are similar to Halloween rites with their emphasis on the power of the apple. Reciting the names of prospective partners whilst twirling an apple by the stem will allow you to know who is the chosen one. The name spoken when the apple falls off the stem is the one. Carefully peeling an apple skin in one piece, then throwing the peel on the floor and studying the shape it makes should reveal the initial of your loved one. The bravest, and most ghoulish ritual is for a young girl to run twelve times around a graveyard at midnight on the Eve of Saint Valentine’s Day whilst singing a prescribed chant. This action should conjure up the appearance of her future spouse. This ritual eerily reflects my initial reason for researching this special day; the link between love and death. What I discovered is that Valentine’s Day has a rich Pagan and Christian culture that is almost forgotten, but worth remembering.
Sadly, the diverse mythology of Valentine’s Day history is shrouded by the commercialism that the holiday attracts. Many of the fun, folky and quirky Valentine’s traditions have been buried under the weight of desperate consumerism. Does this mean the day is totally worthless? Not necessarily so. Valentine’s Day has moved beyond the celebration of romantic love embodied by a couple, so why can’t we? Why not forget the consumerist aspect with the candy, cards and fake hearts and reinvent this day of love?
This Valentine’s Day, let’s explore the amount of love we have, and with how many we can share that love. Remember all those we love in our lives and think about those that we can love. Let’s open our hearts to the forgotten people of the world and even include fauna and flora. So if you want to gift your loved ones why not buy them a present that lasts longer than a day. Why not sponsor a child, animal or tree. The planet can surely do with more signs of our generosity and love. And the world certainly needs more festivals that celebrate love in all its forms and for all of its creatures.