Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. It is a day when men and women are expected to spare no expense in order to spoil their significant other, proving their unwavering devotion to one another. No doubt the sales of Chocolates, flowers, jewellery and champagne increases exponentially. Restaurants are fully booked and hotels seem to increase their price as couples seek cosy destinations just for two.
It feels like as soon as Christmas is over, Valentine’s Day promotions appear as if by magic in high street shops, and couples, usually males, begin to feel the pressure of having to make this year’s celebrations better than the last.
Years ago I joined the backlash against Valentine’s Day championing the argument that it had simply become a ploy by high street retailers to empty our wallets as we attempt to buy our partners gifts that they don’t really need or want. Anyone who refuses to participate in Valentine’s Day celebrations are branded as “unromantic”, or “tight” where money is concerned. I totally understand why people do not want to participate and I personally believe I don’t need a day of the year to tell my partner how much I love her. I show (and tell her that) every day in a thousand different ways.
However this year I will probably succumb to buying her a few little tokens of affection as these little offerings seem to make her happy and the smile on her face is priceless.
But what do we actually know about Valentine’s Day and its origins…and who was St. Valentine?
Valentine’s Day was originally a Christian festival to celebrate the lives of Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Treni. Valentine of Treni was martyred in 197AD during the persecution of the Christians in the reign of Emperor Aurelian. There is a third mentioned in early martyrologies about a Valentine who was martyred in Africa but nothing else is known about this one.
Valentine of Rome was martyred in 496AD. According to the legends surrounding him, he was imprisoned because he agreed to marry soldiers who were forbidden to marry by the emperor, for fear that married soldiers would not fight properly for him, and for ministering Christians who at the time were being persecuted by the Roman Empire.
One legend states that he healed his jailor’s daughter, Asterius, and that before his execution wrote a letter to her signed “Your Valentine”. It is also believed that he tried to convert Emperor Claudius II to Christianity which seemed to seal his fate.
The use of hearts is believed to have originated from the story that Valentine of Rome cut out love hearts from pieces of paper and gave them to the soldiers to keep as a reminder of their vows.
The Romans observed a festival called Lupercalia which took place between February 13–15 and was an archaic rite connected to fertility. Lupercalia was a festival local to the city of Rome. Pope Gelasius I (492–496AD) abolished Lupercalia and led some scholars to surmise that this festival was replaced with the Christian festival of the Purification of Mary held on February 14th. However, there is no evidence to support these claims. (Once again it seems, that in England at least, one of our most popular festivals and traditions is of Roman origin.)
The earliest literary evidence for Valentine’s links with romantic connotations can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1382 poem “Parlement of Foules” in which he wrote:
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
(“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”)
Some historians have argued that Chaucer was not talking of 14th February as it is unlikely for birds to mate at that time of year. The likely reference was to the 3rd May, a celebration for Valentine of Genoa who died around 307AD. However, it has also been argued that the start of spring has changed since the 14th century with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582. The date would correspond to the modern 23rd February, a time when some birds have started mating and nesting in England.
Since the 19th century handwritten notes have given way to factory manufactured cards but it was not until the 1980s when the diamond industry began to promote jewellery as a potential Valentine’s Day gift.
It makes perfect sense to link a festival of love with a festival of fertility and celebrate it at the beginning of spring. Spring is a time of optimism after the dark, cold months of winter and nature begins to produce the next generation of animals and plants.
I doubt that I will be producing a ‘next generation’ anytime soon but I am certainly looking forward to spoiling my significant other a little. After years of being anti-Valentine’s Day maybe I’m getting soft in my old age.
What are your thoughts on Valentine’s Day?