Many people call February 14 “Valentine’s Day”, but some prefer the older “Saint Valentine’s Day” and my diary informs me it is “St. Valentine’s Day”.
Whatever version of the name we prefer, it is widely agreed that this is a day for young … and, be it said, not-so-young … lovers to express their admiration for their loved ones, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. Yet many of the observers of this old custom do not know why February 14 has been deemed to be the best date for a declaration of affection; and many do not know anything about the Valentine after whom the day is named.
Let us begin, gently reader, with the date. February 14 is as near as one can get to the middle of the second month of the year. During the Middle Ages a belief that birds began to pair in mid-February became widespread in England and in France – and I must confess that I do not know if the ‘England’ referred to in this statement is that country south of the Anglo-Scottish border or whether ‘England’ is used here as a synonym for what we call the United Kingdom. Whatever, the fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer included, in his poem The Parliament of Fouls, these two lines: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” This is the earliest known written reference in English … and ‘written’ means copied out by hand, for printing had yet to be invented … to a link between St. Valentine’s Day and … euphemistically … family planning.
However, there was a mid-February festival in Roman times. Lupercalia … a holiday dedicated to the coming of spring … included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery. No talk of romance in those days of two millennia ago! (Had Tina Turner been around then she might well have asked, “What’s love got to do with it?”) But with the gradual spread of the doctrine of Christianity throughout the Roman empire, the long years of pagan worship were drawing to a close; and right at the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I declared that Christians would no longer celebrate Lupercalia in mid-February but would, instead, venerate St. Valentine on February 14, the anniversary of his death.
So who was St. Valentine? That’s a good question! Several early Christians named Valentine were executed for their beliefs, so it’s impossible to be certain. The best candidate is a priest who lived in still-pagan Rome in the third century. The then emperor … Claudius II … took exception to this priest’s habit of performing marriage services for Roman soldiers in defiance of an imperial proclamation that soldiers must be devoted only to Rome and stay unwed. Valentine was imprisoned and was later sanctified for having cured his jailor’s daughter’s blindness before his execution on February 14, 270, give or take a few years.
We must travel through time to the sixteenth century to find the start of the romantic custom of lovers expressing their affection by sending hand-written Valentine cards to their inamoratas. By the eighteenth century, gifts of flowers and confectionery were accompanying the cards; and the nineteenth century brought printed cards and a fascination with the supposed meaning of flowers in which a single red rose shows love, a dozen reveal gratitude, twenty-five are congratulatory and fifty demonstrate unconditional love.
And finally, did you know that there is a gold casket allegedly containing the body of St. Valentine in the church of Blessed St. John Duns Scotus in the Gorbals in Glasgow? Yes, there is! Could ‘No Mean City’ possibly achieve its aspirations to become the City of Love?