Walking through a well-known supermarket this week, I came across a large display of pink wine, red heart-shaped chocolate boxes, more pink wine and cards. This was accompanied by a sign, where it was writ, in big letters, “Discover Valentine’s Day”.
Eh? “Discover”? How many people are there wandering around wondering why shops are decorated with hearts every February? I think what they actually meant was “celebrate”, but they ordered me to “discover”, so I shall.
Who was St Valentine and how romantic was he?
Well, firstly he’s possibly two blokes and secondly, not very. About 11 dudes and one dudette named Valentine are commemorated in the Roman Catholic Calendar, but only two are connected with February 14th. One was a bishop from Terni, and the other a priest from Rome: both were martyred under the Roman Emperor Claudius II and possibly buried somewhere on the Via Flaminia (I’ve been there. Didn’t meet either of them). The accounts of their martyrdoms were written quite a while after their deaths and actually share the same common core of information, suggesting that they were written about the same bloke. In any event, the Catholic Church’s list of recognised saints has only one St Valentine having his day on the 14th. As for the romance, the early descriptions of his life and holy work involve a lot of curing the blind, and in one more spurious account written 1000 years after his death, marrying Christian couples on the sly, at a time when the Romans were cracking down on the new religion.
So is that why is Valentine’s day associated with love and stuff when the connection with him seems tenuous? It used to be believed that his feast day absorbed the Roman festival of Lupercalia, thought to be a time when young Romans would draw lots to decide their future partners, but this practice isn’t actually recorded in any ancient sources and the festival seems to be more to do with fertility and purification after the winter (just have a look at Wikipedia). In fact, the first connections between Lupercalia, Ol’ Vally and romance appear as recently as the late 1700s, by authors keen to find classical antecedents for modern customs.
One belief that is certainly old is the tradition that the 14th of February was the first day of spring when the birds, and sometimes animals, chose their mates for the coming year (before popping off to IKEA for their flatpack nests). This is first recorded in Chaucer’s Parliament of the Birds, although he doesn’t make the logical leap to connect this to humans picking their partners on this day too, suggesting that perhaps that wasn’t a custom in the early middle ages.
The connection is soon made though, with references in poems and plays appearing from the 15th Century; the Tudor/Jacobean poet John Donne wrote a poem to celebrate a marriage that took place on Valentine’s Day in which he imagines the Saint himself as a bishop conducting marriage ceremonies between birds.
From there the tradition of it being a day for lovers takes off, as does the game of drawing lots at a party to pick who your “Valentine” is for the day. Samuel Pepys records examples of this in his diaries. Although married, he and his wife would take part by drawing names and the man presenting his selected woman with gifts – a pair of gloves was considered good luck, but the richer you were, the more extravagant the gifts should be. One year, Pepys complains that he drew his wife for his Valentine and that his gifts are going to cost him 5 pounds. However, he consoles himself with the thought that he’d probably have to spend that much on her anyway. Another year, Pepys records he is well pleased to have drawn a little girl because he wouldn’t need to spend as much on her!
Like Halloween’s Valentine’s Day was considered a good time for single people to divine who their future partner might be. One rather unscientific method was to decide that it was the first person you saw on the day, although you could cheat by keeping your eyes closed until the person you wanted was nearby. The braver lasses would go out to a churchyard after dark and run three times around the churchyard when the clock strikes 12, scattering a handful of hempseed. She’d then run home and look over her shoulder, and if she was destined to be married that year she’d see behind her the figure of her man. Or her stalker.
By the Victorian period it was common to send cards with a romantic message inside to your lover or potential partner (or abusive messages with parody cards). However, the custom soon waned towards the end of the 19th century and was relatively obscure until after the Second World War when the commercial card manufacturers in the USA spotted a good marketing opportunity.
And so to the modern era. Now you can’t shift for card declarations of love, slight affection, friendship or dislike. I know it’s a cliché but I think the whole thing has been over-commercialised. It’s the expectations that have been created that I don’t like. It’s not the game Pepys played any more, it’s considered much more significant: the message in popular culture and advertising seems to be verging on “Your whole relationship is at stake on this very day. If the man doesn’t buy a card, dinner, loads of gifts of wine and chocolate, then the woman will be well pissed off.” I don’t like this assumption. Both genders are assumed to behave in very particular ways. But really? Not every lass wants loads of stuff, or will kick off if she’s not been bought things. Not everyone, male or female, is so materialistic. And anyway, maybe dudes want a bit of a fuss made over them too. And furthermore, sending Valentines cards when you’re at school is pretty grim. At my school it became a popularity competition when we were about 8, and half the class was always miserable or resenting the person who claimed to have the most cards.
When I was last in a relationship that encompassed Valentine’s Day, damn right I wanted a card, and it felt a bit special to send him one, and if we’d been any geographically closer I probably would have suggested getting a nice meal at some point over the weekend. But that’s because that’s what we wanted to do. And likewise for birthdays or anniversaries. Why have just one obligatory day of romance – where’s the spontaneity in that? But anyway, Valentine’s Day is a day for lovers. So do whatever you want to do with him/her – regardless of what the shops think you should be buying – sorry, doing. And for singles, the tradition of getting a card from a secret admirer, or sending one, is sweet, unless you’re a stalker. But it’s not the end of the world, like the internet seems to think it is, if you don’t get a card, or have someone to spend the day with. It’s a day to celebrate romance in the same way that the 15th March is a day to celebrate your Mam. And that’s a nice thing. It’s just that shops have not only jumped on the bandwagon, but they’ve managed to weigh it down with a whole tank of obligations.
So happy Valentine’s Day. Anyway, this year I’m looking forward to the 15th – all that display of pink wine and chocolate should be half price the day after Valentine’s.