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The Origins of Valentine's Day PDF Print E-mail

Have you ever stopped to wonder why we celebrate certain festivals? They are all charming one way or another and most of them involve giving and/or receiving gifts (which makes it even more appealing), but what is the actual reason? The reality is that most festivals have their origin dating back to Pagan times. The natural rhythms of the world (the contrast of night and day, the changes of the seasons and the cycles of the moon) and the repeated events in nature (the ebbing and flowing of tides, the migration of animals and birds) present a curious contradiction: on the one hand, constant change all around us, on the other, reliable repetition at regular intervals. Festivals offer an opportunity for communal gathering and rejoicing on a local, national and even international level.  Some festivals honour occasions in the farming year upon which our survival depends, from ploughing to harvest. Whatever customs we celebrate, they reflect a deep-seated attachment to life-sustaining continuities.

But back to the less serious Valentine’s Day; have you ever wondered why it is celebrated on the 14th of February? Why for instance isn’t it on the 25th of July? During the middle ages, there was a common belief in England and France that birds started to look for a mate on February 14th. On this day, many countries around the world celebrate our most familiar love festival. Valentine’s Day actually has its origins in the Roman festival of Lupercalia observed on February 15th, in the last month of the Roman year. Lupercalia celebrated the coming of spring and honoured the Roman god Faunus, who protected shepherds and their flocks, as well as Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome who were raised by a she-wolf (lupa in Latin). Lupercalia became a celebration to guarantee fertility of flocks, fields and people, and it was also a love festival. To begin the proceedings, members of the Luperci, an order of priests) would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been raised. The priests would sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. The goat’s hide was then cut into strips, dipped into the sacrificial blood and taken to the streets. Not only fields of crops but also women were then touched with these hides, as it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the village would place their names in a large urn, and bachelor men would draw one out, thereby choosing a partner for the remainder of the celebrations.

How did Valentine’s cards come about? According to legend, Emperor Claudius II (ruled 268 – 270CE) banned young men from marriage as he believed it made soldiers reluctant to leave on long campaigns vital to maintenance of the Roman empire. St Valentine was a Catholic priest sympathetic to the desires of young lovers, who married many in secret. Eventually he was captured and put to death on February 14th, 269CE. While awaiting his execution he passed a final message to the blind daughter of his jailor Asterius, with whom he had become friends: this was the first Valentine’s card. During the Middle Ages, Valentine’s messages became popular in Europe. Love notes were spoken, sung or written down and passed between lovers. For example, in 1415 the young French nobleman, Charles Duke of Orleans, sent a love poem to his wife while being held prisoner in the Tower of London. Women entered their names in Valentine’s lotteries, and the man who chose a particular woman wore her name on his sleeve (hence the phrase “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve”), and it was his duty to protect her for a year. Handmade paper Valentine’s were already common in England during the 16th century. Symbols such as hearts were often used instead of signing one’s name – often because the sender was illiterate.

Did you know? In Japan, women buy chocolates for men on Valentine’s Day: kiri-choco, for friends and family, or hon-mei, for husbands or lovers. A month later on White Day, the men reciprocate.

Information courtesy of “Ceremonies of the Seasons” by Jennifer Cole