With an oversized bouquet of roses and a pink lick of glittery promise, Valentine’s Day always seems to shock me with the haste at which it arrives upon our doorsteps every year.
There’s no escaping the bright red bulldozer of love that comes roaring around the corner of February at breakneck speed, but have you ever wondered why this holiday has become such a poignant part of our seasonal celebrations?
What is Valentine’s Day?
Celebrated on 14th February, Valentine’s Day is a festival that is observed right across the globe. Also known as Saint Valentine’s Day or the Feast of Saint Valentine, this celebration is focused around the theme of love (particularly romantic) and traditions include the giving of roses, chocolates and cards with messages of affection inside.
As with many festivals that find themselves a firm part of modern culture, Valentine’s Day is actually an amalgamation of historical traditions that have been concentrated into one big celebration. Let’s start with the man of the moment: Saint Valentine.
Who was Saint Valentine?
The funny thing about Saint Valentine is that he wasn’t actually just one guy. There were numerous “Valentines”, and no one is completely sure who is being referenced when he’s talked about – it could be a combination of several different chaps. Additionally, over the years the tale of this loved-up saint has been embellished so heavily that we can’t know for certain what’s true and what’s not anymore!
According to one legend, Roman Emperor Claudius II had prohibited marriage for young men, claiming that bachelors made better soldiers. Valentine continued to secretly perform marriage ceremonies and was eventually caught redhanded by the Romans and imprisoned. In a tragic set of circumstances, Valentine fell in love with the daughter of his jailer and the night before his execution he allegedly sent her a letter signed “from your Valentine.”
What else inspired Valentine’s Day?
Besides this fairly grim story, the holiday also traces its roots back to the Roman celebration of Lupercalia: a fertility festival that lasted from 13th to 15th February. During this celebration, male youths clad in animal skin ran around the city slapping passersby with strips of goat skin. Male goats are apparently the embodiment of sexuality, and this strange skin slapping shindig supposedly secured fertility and helped to keep evil at bay.
Just be glad that Lupercalia isn’t a festival that’s survived the centuries.
In 1381 Chaucer wrote a poem to commemorate the engagement of England’s Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. This little ditty was perhaps the first time that Valentine’s Day was mentioned as a specific date, and linked the day of February 14th with the mating of the birds, and therefore choosing one’s soulmate.
The first handmade Valentine’s cards appeared in the 16th century, and companies began mass-producing them in around the 1800s. To begin with, these designs were hand-colored by factory workers, but by the early 20th century technology had advanced to such a level that even fancy lace and ribbon-strewn cards were created en masse by machines.
Valentine’s traditions from around the world
In Finland Valentine’s Day is called Ystävänpäivä which translates into “Friend’s Day”. Those smart Finnish folk put the emphasis on remembering friends rather than loved ones, which is something we should all consider before getting carried away with roses and chocolates.
In Wales, many people celebrate St Dwynwen’s Day on January 25 instead of Valentine’s Day. St Dwynwen was the patron saint of Welsh lovers.
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in two halves – the traditional holiday on 14th February and White Day on 14th March. In February it is only the women to send gifts to their loved ones, and they will not know until the March date if their love is reciprocal. White Day is the opportunity for men to return the favour, and luckily for the ladies, these gifts are supposed to be about three times more valuable than their Valentine’s presents!
In Israel, the Jewish tradition of Tu B’Av is celebrated in late August. In ancient times girls would wear white dresses and dance in the vineyards, where the boys would be waiting.